West Indian cedar or Spanish cedar is a fast-growing timber tree native to a wide expanse of tropical America, its natural range extending from Central America and the Caribbean south into South America, as far south as northern Argentina.
It may attain heights of up to 30 m (98 ft) in its natural habitat, though more typically is 15 to 20 m (50 to 65 ft) tall with a straight trunk supporting a densely leafy, rounded crown. The bark is light grey or light-brown, smooth when young, becoming rough and furrowed with age.
The leaves are large, up to 80 cm (2.6 ft) long and feathery, made up of ten to twenty-eight deep green, oval to lance-shaped leaflets, each 8 to 15 cm (3 to 6 in) long and arranged in pairs along the length. They fall in the dry season to conserve water, leaving the branches bare until the rainy season, when the new leaves emerge.
Tiny, inconspicuous white flowers soon follow the new leaves, borne in loose clusters at the tips of the branches. These are succeeded by small, woody, egg-shaped capsules that turn brown when mature, then split open inside-out to expel their seed, which are winged for wind dispersal.
It is a well-known timber species highly regarded for its sweetly aromatic, versatile and naturally pest repellent wood. The wood-weight ranges from 400 to 650 kgs per cubic meter (25 to 41 lbs per cubic ft) and its natural durability, or resistance to decay and termites varies depending on the growing conditions, with slow-growing trees from the low rainfall areas tending to develop a heavier, more durable wood than fast-growing trees from high rainfall areas.
The heartwood is pinkish- to red-brown, sometimes with a purple tinge and is sought after for building interior cabinets and shelves and making wooden cigar boxes. Selected roundwood lengths are sliced for decorative veneer and for making plywood.
An essential oil is steam-distilled from waste-wood material collected from sawmills. Known as 'Cedrela oil', it is a greenish-yellow to olive-coloured liquid with a pleasing and powerful dry-woody aroma, reminding of cedarwood oil, which is a commercially important essential oil derived from various cold-climate conifers. It is used mainly as a fragrance for soaps, disinfectants and air fresheners.
West Indian Cedar's overexploitation for its wood has led to it being listed as a vulnerable tree species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). This brings attention to the need to protect the dwindling number of wild trees.
Grows naturally and makes good development as a timber tree in moderately humid subtropical and tropical climates, generally areas with annual lows of 15 to 25 °C, annual highs of 25 to 35 °C, annual rainfall of 1200 to 2600 mm and a dry season of 6 months or less, extending to 9 months with irrigation or groundwater.
Areas with annual rainfall of 2000 mm or more are preferred for timber plantations, as the trees are fast-growing and tend to produce long straight trunks. However, this is usually at the expense of natural resistance to rot, decay and wood-boring insects.
In Jamaica, West Indian Cedar is found growing naturally at elevations from near sea level of up 1025 m (3360 ft), in areas where the average low of the warmest month is 17 °C (63 °F) or above.
New plants are usually started from seed, which have a high germination rate. Seedlings and trees grow quickly, performing best on free-draining clay-loam, loam, sandy-loam, loamy-sand and limestone soils of a slightly acid to alkaline nature, generally with a pH of 6.0 to 8.0, and on sites with full to partial sun exposure. Trees have poor tolerance to slow-draining or waterlogged soils.
The thin paper-like seed germinate readily and are designed for dispersal on the wind, which can carry them afar. This ability to spread outside cultivation has contributed to it becoming a problem weed in some areas, particularly where it is an introduced species and can potentially disrupt the natural ecology. It is assessed as a high weed risk species for Hawaii by the Hawaii Pacific Weed Risk Assessment (HPWRA) project.
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