West Indian Mahogany, Swietenia mahagoni, is among the most common Florida native trees used in landscaping, and for good reason. It provides plenty of shade, requires little in the way of care and, most importantly in Hurricane Alley, it is wind-resistant. What’s not to like?
But it’s a native only to a relatively small slice of extreme southern Florida and is rarely found growing in the wild. The state, in fact, lists West Indian mahogany as threatened. The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which takes a global perspective, classifies it as endangered.
West Indian mahogany is found in coastal hammocks in South Florida, the Caribbean and in a few South American countries, including Venezuela and Colombia. In South Florida, it’s limited to Miami-Dade, Broward, Collier, Lee and Monroe counties. If it’s found farther north, it’s almost certainly as a landscaping plant. It’s been highly prized as a source of lumber, so the tree has been exported to and planted in tropical and subtropical places around the globe.
It’s a tall tree, typically reaching 40 to 60 feet at maturity, but it can hit 75 feet, with a 50-foot spread. Leaves are compound, with four to eight pairs of leaflets each, alternately arranged on the branch. Leaflets can be curved slightly, looking like a comma. It does drop its leaves briefly in the dry season — it's what scientists call tardily deciduous — but quickly sprouts new ones. On younger trees, the bark is light gray and smooth, but darkens and roughens and becomes scaly as the tree matures. It flowers in the spring; the blooms are greenish-white and won’t exactly dazzle the eye, but they are fragrant. The fruit, shown below, is a large nut-like pod that splits open star-like while on the tree when ripe, releasing as many as 60 winged seeds that are dispersed by the wind. On the negative side in the landscape: it does have large surface roots that can lift nearby paved surfaces like sidewalks and driveways. According to the University of Florida, deflectors can be used to keep the roots away. And it can be a little messy, with its dropped leaves.
West Indian mahogany is one of three members of Swietenia found in the Western Hemisphere. The others are Honduran mahogany, S humilis, and large-leaf mahogany, S macrophylla, and all are prized for their dark, dense wood. The conquistador Hernando Cortez used mahogany to patch planks in his ship, according to the U.S. Forest Service, which refers to West Indian as American mahogany. Mahoganies have been widely used to make everything from fine furniture to coffins, and harvested nearly to the point of extinction in the wild. All three are listed under the Comprehensive International Treaty on Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which restricts international trade of plants and animals vulnerable to extinction. By the time West Indian mahogany was listed under CITES in 1992, it was already considered commercially extinct, according to the Forest Service. Large-leaf mahogany is grown on plantations in the Philippines, Indonesia and Fiji, and that wood is not restricted by CITES. One more note: there are trees grown in Africa and Asia called mahoganies, but there are not related to West Indian mahogany.
Other problems for the West Indian mahogany’s survival in the wild: loss of habitat to farming and ranching, and declining genetic diversity because of fragmented habitat.
West Indian mahogany can be found in more than a dozen countries in Africa, Asia and Australia where there are tropical or subtropical climates, according to the Invasive Species Compendium. It rarely naturalizes, or escapes into the wild.
Other names for West Indian mahogany: Cuban mahogany, small-leaf mahogany and the aforementioned American mahogany. It is a member of Meliaceae, the mahogany family.