African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon)

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African blackwood
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African blackwood fact file

African blackwood description

KingdomPlantae
PhylumTracheophyta
ClassMagnoliopsida
OrderFabales
FamilyLeguminosae
GenusDalbergia (1)

The small, unassuming African blackwood (Dalbergia melanoxylon) conceals one of the most sought-after and valuable heartwoods in the world. Stripping away the yellowish grey sapwood reveals the deep purple to brownish black core, this wood is extremely resistant and durable and is known variously as African blackwood, African ebony, 'poyi' and (in Swahili) as 'mpingo' (2). The African blackwood tree is small and heavily branched, the trunks are seldom straight and many stems may be present; the rough bark is grey with many fissures, and the branches have small spines (2). Leaves are up to 22 centimetres long and carry small, oval-shaped leaflets (2). In season, the branches of the African blackwood tree are adorned with tiny, white, sweetly-smelling flowers born as clusters on inflorescences, which may reach 12 centimetres in length (2). The seedpods of this tree are flattened oblong cases that are roughly pointed, and contain one or two seeds (2).

Also known as
Mozambique ebony, mpingo.
Size
Height: 5 - 12 m (2)
Trunk diameter: 20 - 30 cm (3)
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African blackwood biology

The African blackwood is a deciduous tree, losing its foliage in the dry season; flowers appear in the second half of the dry season (5). This tree is long-lived and extremely slow-growing (6). The African blackwood is a vital component of the African savanna ecosystem; the nodules on the roots fix nitrogen producing a more fertile soil, the leaves provide vital browse for herbivores, and the extensive root system stabilizes the soil (6). Mature African blackwood trees are resistant to fire (6).

Different parts of the tree have been used as herbal remedies over the years; the bark may be used to treat diarrhoea, the root is burnt for a smoke-inhalation cure of headaches and colds, and there are many other traditional uses of this important tree in different areas within its range (3).

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African blackwood range

The African blackwood is native to 26 African countries (4); it is found from Mozambique north to Ethiopia and west from the east African coast to Senegal (3). The main strongholds of the tree however, are southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique (5).

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African blackwood habitat

Found in deciduous woodland and savanna, the African blackwood is often associated with dry, rocky areas and poor soils (2).

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African blackwood status

The African blackwood is classified as Near Threatened (LR/nt) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Near Threatened

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African blackwood threats

The African blackwood has been highly prized for many centuries for the properties of its heartwood; the oily, fine wood was used by the Egyptians for tomb artefacts (5), the dark, resistant wood has been used to make utensils, and the Makonde tribe of East Africa make intricate carvings, which are now an important source of tourist revenue (5). Possibly the most famous use is for the manufacture of woodwind instruments. The unique properties of the African blackwood heartwood are seen as vital for the production of top quality clarinets; it is dense, resistant, and produces a beautiful tone (4). The export of timber for the manufacture of musical instruments is an important source of income in countries such as Tanzania, where processed timber fetches up to US $13,000 per cubic metre (5). It is however, a highly inefficient process and up to 90 percent of a tree will be discarded as unsuitable (4). Whilst the mature trees are being harvested for this trade, younger specimens are under increasing pressure from man-made bushfires, which have increased in frequency as the land is cleared for agriculture (6). It is feared that the continued uncontrolled exploitation of the African blackwood tree will cause it to become commercially extinct within a few decades (5); it is already threatened in Kenya and noticeably scarcer within Tanzania (6).

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African blackwood conservation

The African blackwood is the National Tree of Tanzania; it is an immensely important tree, both culturally and economically, and the sustainable management of this tree is vital if trade in its heartwood is to continue (4). The African Blackwood Conservation Project (ABCP) was founded in 1996 and is working to cultivate young trees with the view to replanting them in areas where it has disappeared (5). Education is also a large part of their work, and the ABCP has set up school programmes in Tanzania to increase the awareness of local people for the conservation issues involved (5). Fauna & Flora International (FFI) have also been heavily involved with the conservation of the African blackwood tree, particularly through their Global Trees Campaign (4). It is hoped that adopting sustainable measures now will allow this ancient, musical tree to survive.

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Find out more

Find out more about the African blackwood:

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Authentication

Authenticated (31/03/03) by Fauna and Flora International’s Global Trees Campaign.
http://www.globaltrees.org

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Glossary

Deciduous
A plant that sheds its leaves at the end of the growing season.
Heartwood
The inner layers of wood in a tree that no longer contain living cells or produce sap. Heartwood tends to be darker in colour than the outer ‘sapwood’.
Herbivore
An animal that consumes only vegetable matter.
Inflorescence
The reproductive shoot of a plant, which bears a group or cluster of flowers.
Leaflets
The individual 'leaf-like' parts of a compound leaf.
Sapwood
The living, soft wood between the bark of a tree and its inner, non-living heartwood. This outer layer of wood contains the sap and is generally lighter in colour than the heartwood.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2011)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Milne-Redhead, E. and Polhill, R.M. (1971) Flora of Tropical East Africa: Part 3(1). Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  3. Burkhill, H.M. (1995) The Useful Plants of West Tropical Africa, Vol 3 [2nd ed]. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
  4. Global Trees Campaign (January, 2003)
    http://www.globaltrees.org
  5. African Blackwood Conservation Project (January, 2003)
    http://www.blackwoodconservation.org
  6. Natural World (BBC 1992).
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Image credit

African blackwood  
African blackwood

© Steve Ball / Fauna & Flora International

Fauna & Flora International
Jupiter House (4th Floor)
Station Road
Cambridge
CB1 2JD
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 1223 571 000
Fax: +44 (0) 1223 461 481
info@fauna-flora.org
http://www.fauna-flora.org/

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