Cedrela odorata

Common name: West Indian cedar

Other common names: Barbados cedar, Cigar box cedar, Mexican cedar, Spanish cedar, Sugar crate wood

Names in non-English languages: Spanish German

Description

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.

Use

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.

Climate

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.

Growing

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.

Problem features

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.

Where it will grow

With irrigation or groundwater

References

Books

  • Adams, C. D. 1972, Flowering plants of Jamaica, University of the West Indies, Mona, Greater Kingston

  • Arctander, S. 1960, Perfume and flavor materials of natural origin, Elizabeth, New Jersey

  • Barwick, M., et al. 2004, Tropical & subtropical trees : a worldwide encyclopaedic guide, Thames and Hudson, London

  • Burns R.M., Mosquera M.S. & Whitmone J.L. 1998, Useful trees of the tropical region of North America, North American Forestry Commission Publication (Number 3), Washington D.C.

  • Burns, R.M. & Honkala, B.H. 1990, Silvics of North America (Volume 2) : Hardwoods, Agricultural Handbook 654, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Washington D.C.

  • Croat, T. B. 1978, Flora of Barro Colorado Island, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California

  • Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) 1986, Databook on endangered tree and shrub species and provenances, FAO Forestry Paper 77, Forest Resources Division, Rome

  • Francis, J. K. 1998, Tree species for planting in forest, rural, and urban areas of Puerto Rico, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, International Institute of Tropical Forestry, Piedras, Puerto Rico

  • Francis, J. K. et al. 2000, Silvics of Native and Exotic Trees of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean Islands, Technical Report IITF-15, USDA Forest Service, Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico

  • Howes, F. N. 1949, Vegetable gums and resins, Chronica Botanica Company, Waltham, Massachusetts

  • Kukachka, B. F & Forest Products Laboratory (U.S.) 1970, Properties of imported tropical woods, United States, Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, forest Products Laboratory, Madison

  • Lemmens, R.H.M.J., Louppe, D. & Oteng-Amoako, A.A. (eds). PROTA, Plant Resources of Tropical Africa, Volume 7(1) : Timbers 1, PROTA Foundation, Backhuys Publishers, Leiden

  • Liegel, L. H. 1987. A technical guide for forest nursery management in the Caribbean and Latin America, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southern Forest Experiment Station, New Orleans

  • McGregor, Samuel Emmett n.d., Insect pollination of cultivated crop plants, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service : for sale by the Supt. of Docs., U.S. Govt. Print. Off, Washington

  • Nair, P. K. R. 1993, An introduction to agroforestry, International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF), Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht

  • Patino Valera, Fernando 1997, Genetic resources of Swietenia and Cedrela in the neotropics : proposals for coordinated action, Forest Resources Div., Forestry Dept., Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome

  • Reyes, G. 1992, Wood densities of tropical tree species, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southern Forest Experiment Station, New Orleans, Louisiana

  • Scheffer, T. C & Morrell, J. J. 1998, Natural durability of wood : a worldwide checklist of species, Forest Research Laboratory, Oregon State University, Corvallis, Oregon

  • Streets, R. J. & Troup, R. S. 1962, Exotic forest trees in the British Commonwealth, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England

  • Vázquez, Y. C. 1999, Potentially valuable Mexican trees for ecological restoration and reforestation, Institute of Ecology, Database SNIB-REMIB-CONABIO, Project J084, Mexico

  • Vozzo, J. A 2002, Tropical tree seed manual, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Forest Service, Washington D.C.

  • Webb, D. B. 1984, A Guide to species selection for tropical and sub-tropical plantations, 2nd ed., Unit of Tropical Silviculture, Commonwealth Forestry Institute, University of Oxford, Oxfordshire

Articles, Journals, Reports and Working Papers

  • Commonwealth Forestry Institute, Department of Forestry, University of Oxford, Fast growing timber trees of the lowland tropics (No. 1-6; 1968-1973), Oxford, U.K.

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