Mulanje cedar (Widdringtonia whytei)

Also known as: Mlanje cedar, Mlanje cypress, Mulanje cedarwood
GenusWiddringtonia (1)
SizeHeight: 42.7 m (2)
Trunk diameter: 1.5 m (2)

The Mulanje cedar is classified as Critically Endangered (CR) by the IUCN Red List (1). There has been much debate on whether this species is actually a form or sub-species of Widdringtonia nodiflora, a more common southern African species (3) (4) (5). However, recent DNA research undertaken by the University of Cape Town has revealed that Widdringtonia whytei is indeed a separate species.

The Mulanje cedar, declared the national tree of Malawi by the late Malawi president Hastings Kamazu Banda (3) (5), is considered a very valuable timber, important to socio-economic development (6). It is a tall, impressive, wide-crowned forest tree with a long straight trunk (4), often branchless up to a height of about 21 meters, making it useful for timber (2). Like the other three Widdringtonia species native to Africa, or ‘African cypresses’, this tree is referred to as a ‘cedar’ (7), possibly for the aromatic, cedar-like odour of its wood (2), but is actually completely unrelated to true cedars (7). As with many other species in the cypress family, Widdringtonia species have different juvenile and adult foliage. While seedlings have needle-like leaves arranged spirally around a stem, adults possess scale-like leaves, arranged in opposite pairs at right angles to one another, pressed tightly against the stem (7) (8).

The Mulanje cedar is endemic to Mount Mulanje, a Forest Reserve in southern Malawi. Mount Mulanje covers an area of 650 m² and rises over 3,000 metres, making it the second highest mountain in southern Africa (1) (3) (5).

Scattered in sub-montane, moist, mixed, open forest between 1,500 and 2,200 meters above sea level (9).

Widdringtonia species are hermaphroditic: having both male and female reproductive organs on the same plant (monoecious) (8). The seeds of most Widdringtonia species may be kept in the female cones for several years, and are usually only dropped after being scorched by a wildfire to grow on the newly cleared burnt ground (9). The Mulanje cedar is a pioneer species, which is unable to regenerate under a closed canopy. Protected from frequent fires saplings can be found growing sporadically on the forest edge (5). Very little else has been documented on the biology of this tree.

The Mulanje cedar has been heavily exploited in the past (3) (5) (9), with its wood used as timber and its sawdust distilled to obtain oil for local use as an insecticide (3) (5) (10). The wood is considered enormously valuable, being very fragrant and resistant to termites, borers and fungal disease. It is used locally for making carvings, boxes and furniture sold to tourists and is also sold abroad for light construction and flooring. The timber is thought to be particularly good for boat-building, to the point that fishery officials have urged that remaining supplies be reserved for the Lake Malawi fishing industry. The Forestry Department of Malawi have recently agreed to supply Mulanje Cedar to build 450 boats for this purpose (11). The tree’s decline has been somewhat stemmed by a ban on felling, allowing exploitation only of dead trees, but illegal felling and killing of trees continues at an alarming rate. The Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve is also generally threatened by encroachment and large-scale development, such as the continual threat of bauxite mining. Additionally, there is concern that mature individuals appear to be dying at a high rate, thought possibly to be due to their high sensitivity to forest fires and susceptibility to attacks by a species of aphid (3). Regeneration, on the other hand, seems to depend on fire and is extremely poor. In addition, Pinus patula (originally a commercial plantation species) has invaded a number of areas suitable for Widdringtonia colonisation (5) (9). All these threats have greatly impacted the Mulanje cedar; a 2007 study found that the remaining Mulanje cedar forests had been reduced by 40 percent over the previous 15 years (3). Out of the remaining 845.3 hectares of forest identified, over 32 percent of standing Mulanje cedar was found to be dead (3). As so much dead wood is available for utilisation, there should be no reason to cut live Mulanje cedar (3).

All Mulanje cedars are protected within the Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve and licences are available now only for the exploitation of dead trees from the Forestry Department of Malawi (3) (9). The Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust has also been set up to provide long-term support for the research and conservation of biological diversity in the Mulanje Mountain Forest Reserve, and the sustainable utilisation of its natural resources. The Trust is working with the Forestry Department of Malawi in bringing in community participation to manage the resources of the forest reserve and maximise the benefits among resource users (12). Not only is the Mulanje cedar a national emblem to Malawi, but it is also of critical financial importance to this relatively poor country and, as such, its protection and sustainable use is a national priority (6).

For more information on the Mulanje cedarwood see:

Authenticated (24/09/07) by Julian Bayliss (PhD), Ecologist, Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust, P.O. Box 139, Mulanje, Malawi.

  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2013)
  2. USDA Forest Service (September, 2007)
  3. Bayliss, J., Makunga, S., Hecht, J., Nangoma, D. and Bruessow, C. (2007) Saving the island in the sky: the plight of the Mount Mulanje cedar Widdringtonia whytei. Oryx, 41(1): 64 - 69.
  4. Pauw, A.C. and Linder, P.H. (1997) Tropical African cedars (Widdringtonia, Cupressaceae): systematics, ecology and conservation status. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 123(4): 297 - 319.
  5. Chapman, J.D. (1995) The Mulanje Cedar – Malawi’s National Tree. Society of Malawi, Blantyre.
  6. UNESCO – MAB Biosphere Reserve Directory (September, 2007)
  7. (September, 2007)
  8. The Gymnosperm Database (September, 2007)
  9. UNEP-WCMC (September, 2007)
  10. Burfield, T. (2003) Unethical Use of Rare and Threatened Plant and Animal Products in the Aroma Industry. Endangered Species Update, 20(3): 97 - 106.
  11. Bayliss, J. (2007) Pers. comm.
  12. Mulanje Mountain Conservation Trust (September, 2007)