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close this bookNitrogen Fixing Trees Highlights (Winrock, 1990-1997, 100 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentAcacia koa - Hawaii's most valued native tree
View the documentAcacia leucophloea - shade and fodder for livestock in arid environments
View the documentAlnus acuminata: valuable timber tree for tropical highlands
View the documentAlbizia saman: pasture improvement, shade, timber and more
View the documentCasuarina junghuhniana: a highly adaptable tropical casuarina
View the documentEnterolobium cyclocarpum: the ear pod tree for fasture, fodder and wood
View the documentErythrina variegata: more than a pretty tree
View the documentInga edulis: a tree for acid soils in the humid tropics
View the documentPithecellobium dulce - sweet and thorny
View the documentPterocarpus indicus - the majestic n-fixing tree
View the documentRobinia pseudoacacia: temperate legume tree with worldwide potential
View the documentAcacia nilotica - pioneer for dry lands
View the documentAcacia saligna - for dryland fodder and soil stabilization
View the documentAcacia senegal: gum tree with promise for agroforestry
View the documentAcacia seyal - multipurpose tree of the Sahara desert
View the documentAcacia tortilis: fodder tree for desert sands
View the documentAlnus nepalensis: a multipurpose tree for the tropical highlands
View the documentCasuarina equisetifolia: an old-timer with a new future
View the documentCasuarina glauca: a hardy tree with many attributes
View the documentChamaecytisus palmensis: hardy, productive fodder shrub
View the documentDalbergia latifolia: the high-valued Indian rosewood
View the documentDalbergia melanoxylon: valuable wood from a neglected tree
View the documentErythrina edulis: multipurpose tree for the tropical highlands
View the documentErythrina sandwicensis - unique Hawaiian NFT
View the documentHippophaƫ rhamnoides: an NFT valued for centuries
View the documentLeucaena diversifolia - fast growing highland NFT species
View the documentLeucaena: an important multipurpose tree
View the documentOlneya tesota - a potential food crop for hot arid zones
View the documentHoney mesquite: a multipurpose tree for arid lands
View the documentPongamia pinnata - a nitrogen fixing tree for oilseed
View the documentGuazuma ulmifolia: widely adapted tree for fodder and moreli
View the documentFaidherbia albida - inverted phenology supports dryzone agroforestry
View the documentGleditsia triacanthos - honeylocust, widely adapted temperate zone fodder tree
View the documentAndira inermis: more than a beautiful ornamental tree
View the documentErythrina poeppigiana: shade tree gains new perspectives
View the documentAlbizia procera - white siris for reforestation and agroforestry
View the documentAlbizia odoratissima - tea shade tree
View the documentAdenanthera pavonina: an underutlized tree of the humid tropics
View the documentAcacia mangium: an important multipurpose tree for the tropic lowlands
View the documentAcacia auiculiformis - a multipurpose tropical wattle
View the documentPentaclethra microphylla: a multipurpose tree from Africa lwith potential for agroforestry in the tropics
View the documentMyroxylon balsam and much more
View the documentOugeinia dalbergioides: a multipurpose tree for sub-tropical and tropical mountain regions
View the documentProsopis alba and prosopis chilensis: subtropical semiarid fuel and fodder trees
View the documentSesbania sesban: widely distributed multipurpose NFT
View the documentProsopis cineraria: a multipurpose tree for arid areas
View the documentJuliflorae acacias: new food source for the sahel
View the documentSesbania grandiflora: NFT for beauty, food, fodder and soil improvement
View the documentAcacia aneura - a desert fodder tree

Dalbergia melanoxylon: valuable wood from a neglected tree

Dalbergia melanoxylon produces one of the finest timbers in the world. Known in Tanzania as African ironwood, African ebony, mpingo, poyi or mugembe (Brenan and Greenway, 1949; Gillet et al., 1971; Noad and Birnie. 1989), round logs of this species fetch up to US$18,000/m. Yet the trees are seldom planted and little is known about their silviculture.


Dalbergia melanoxylon Guill. & Perr. (Leguminosae subfamily Papilionoidae) is a small, heavily branched tree, typically 4.5 to 7.5 m tall but occasionally reaching 15 m. The bole is fluted with high narrow ribs separated by deep indentations. Bole length occasionally reaches up to 3.6 m, but normally ranges from 1.2 to 1.8 m. Average diameter at breast height (dbh) at maturity is less than 38 cm, although trees have been found with a dbh of more than 60 cm. The bark is pale gray to grayish-brown, papery, fairly smooth, and flaking in long narrow strips (Bryce, 1967). The stems are often crooked.

Dalbergia melanoxylon Guill. and Perr., from I.R Dale and P.J. Greenway. 1961. Kenya trees and shrubs. Nairobi: Buchanan's Kenya Estates Ltd. p. 361.

Branchlets are clustered at the nodes. Some grow out, while others are short and spine tipped. They are covered at first with short crisp hairs, and are usually glabrous. Leaves are alternate, pinnately compound and 6 to 22 cm long. The fragrant white flowers are 6 to 9 cm long, occurring in dense clusters. There are usually nine stamens, united or variously divided. Pods are elliptic oblong or irregularly oblong, bluntly pointed, flat and thin. They range from 3 to 7 cm long and 0.8 to 1.4 cm wide. They tend to be papery, glabrous, and laxly and rather diffusely veined, with one or two seeds.


Dalbergia melanoxylon grows under a wide range of conditions including semi-arid, subhumid and tropical lowland areas. It is often found on dry, rocky sites at elevations from sea level to 1200 m, but is most frequent in the mixed deciduous forests and savannas of the coastal region. The mean minimum temperature in its native range is 18°C and the maximum is 35°C, with no frost. Annual rainfall averages 700 to 1200 mm, often distributed in a bimodal pattern of three to six months. Soils vary from loamy sands to clayey vertisols ("black cotton soils"). The species is water and light demanding; it is common near water and will not regenerate under heavy cover. Mature trees are fire tolerant.


Dalbergia melanoxylon is widely distributed in Africa, from Senegal across to Sudan, Eritrea and northern Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya. To the south, it ranges from Angola to Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique, as far south as the Transvaal (Gillett et al., 1971; Redhead and Temu, 1981).


Traditional uses include fuelwood and charcoal, as well as pestles, combs, knife shafts, cups and farming implements.


The sapwood is white or yellowish-white, often 12 cm wide, and sharply differentiated. The heartwood is purplish black, sometimes darker towards the outside, with light streaks and not always uniform in color. The timber is slightly oily, exceptionally hard and heavy, brittle and somewhat fissile. The heartwood is extremely durable (specific gravity not yet determined) and resistant to all forms of biodeterioration. The sapwood, however, is susceptible to fungal or insect attack (Bryce, 1967). The dry wood is difficult to saw or plane. It blunts saws and cutters and cannot be nailed or screwed without drilling. It is, however, the finest of all turnery timbers, cutting exactly and finishing to a brilliantly polished, lustrous surface, dry and cold to the touch.


The calorific value of the sapwood and heartwood is more than 49,000 Kcal/kg. Heat generation is so high that fires of D. melanoxylon have been reported to melt cooking utensils.

Specialized uses.

The wood of D. melanoxylon is used in carving, turnery and marquetry to produce sculptures, musical instruments, ornaments, inlays, chess pieces. walking sticks, gearings and many other products. The main industrial use, long supporting an export trade from East Africa and Mozambique, is the manufacture of musical instruments, especially woodwinds. With its high density and fine texture. D. melanoxylon wood produces a beautiful musical tone. It is stable, stands up to metal-working processes, and takes an excellent finish (Bryce. 1967).

The roots are used in traditional medicines to treat abdominal pain, diarrhea and syphilis. The smoke is inhaled to treat headaches and bronchitis. The pods and leaves can be used as animal fodder.


Seed treatment.

Seeds (about 42,000/kg) generally remain viable for only a few months, although viability could probably be increased by storage in sealed containers. Seed extracted from pods germinates readily without treatment. However. few seedlings attain maturity under natural conditions due to fire and drought (Mugasha. 1978).


In Tanzania. D. melanoxylon has not yet been planted extensively. Experimental work suggests that survival and growth are improved by planting two-year-old stumps that are 14 cm long, comprising 12 cm of root and 2 cm of shoot. These should be planted in the early or middle rainy season, followed by intensive weeding. Potted seedlings may also be used, but they tend to grow more slowly (Mugasha, 1983). When seedlings are raised in pots, frequent root pruning is mandatory. Delayed pruning leads to seedling shock. Advanced plant-production techniques, such as tissue culture or use of growth hormones, have not been tested.


Field trials are currently exploring suitable spacing for D. melanoxylon plantations. An initial spacing of 2 x 2 m results in good branching characteristics, while later thinning improves growth. Stem form is improved by raising the trees under medium shade provided by Pinus caribaea Morelet (Nshubemuki, 1983).

Thorough weeding is important at the initial phase of establishment. After 7.5 years, trees planted early in the rainy season on thoroughly weeded plots averaged about 30% taller than trees planted at the same time but only lightly weeded. Trees planted in the middle of the rainy season and thoroughly weeded were taller still-about 45% taller than those planted at the beginning of the rains and lightly weeded (Mugasha, 1983). Intensive weeding is crucial until root-collar diameters measure about 5 cm. Alternatively, the area around the trees should be slashed until root-collar diameters measure 8 to 10 cm. The species is extremely slow growing: trees obtain timber size in 70 to 100 years. Studies on mycorrhizal associations have not been initiated.

Pests and diseases.

Heart rot is observed on some logs, apparently associated with fungal infection following fire damage. Small game may feed on young shoots and leaves.


Dalbergia melanoxylon is not gregarious and may be difficult to establish in pure plantations. Rapid loss of seed variability might also make it difficult to establish plantations in new areas. Difficulties in working the wood call for specialized techniques. perhaps not feasible for cottage industries.

Logs are almost invariably defective and the wastage is considerable in conversion to top-grade dimension stock. End checks appear soon after felling and star shakes develop unless end coatings are applied immediately. Seasoning may take as long as two to three years after pieces are rough sawn.

Future research needs

Dalbergia melanoxylon occurs in three of the four drainage basins found in Tanzania. Observed differences in growth habits suggest the existence of clinal variation resulting from genetic, topographic and ecological influences. Selections for characters such as fast growth. wood quality, volume production and stem straightness have considerable potential. Studies of provenance variation related to end use should form the basis for in-situ and ex-situ conservation.

Research would be useful on improved methods to increase seed viability and shorten the seasoning period. Symbiotic relationships also need to be explored and quantified. HybridCation with related species, such as D. sissoo, should be initiated.


Brenan, J.P.M. and Greenway, P.J. 1949. Check lists of the forest trees and shrubs of the British Empire. Part 5: Tanganyika Territory. Oxford (UK): Imperial Forestry Institute. p 418.

Bryce, J.M. 1967. The commercial timbers of Tanzania. Moshi (Tanzania): Tanzania Forest Division, Utilization Section, p. 139.

Gillet, J.B., Polhill, R.M. and Verdourt, B. 1971. Flora of tropical East Africa. Part 3: Leguminosae, sub-family Papilionoidae.

Mugasha, A.G. 1978. Tanzania natural forests' silvicultural research: review report. Tanzania Silviculture Technical Note (New Series) 39, p. 41.

Mugasha, A.G. 1978. The effects of planting season, different planting materials and weeding methods on early performance of Dalbergia melanoxylon at Kwamarukanga, Korogwe, Tanzania. Tanzania Silviculture Research Note 43,p. 14.

Noad, T. and Birnie, A. 1989. Trees of Kenya. Nairobi: General Printers, p. 219.

Nshubemuki, L. 1993. Recent research progress in the silviculture of Dalbergia melanoxylon in Tanzania. Paper presented to the International Workshop on Dalbergia species, 31 May to 4 June, Hetauda, Nepal.

Redhead, J.F. and Temu, A.B. 1981. Valued timber but neglected tree: mpingo (Dalbergia melanoxylon). Tanzania Association of Foresters Newsletter. 2:8-9.

Tack, C.H. 1962. Nomenclature of East African timbers. Nairobi: East African Timber Advisory Board, p. 16.

Financial support for this NFT Highlight was provided by the United States Forest Service Forestry Support Program (USFS/FSP) and the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA).

A publication of the Nitrogen Fixing Tree Association 1010 Holomua Road, Paia, Hawaii 96779-6744. USA Tel: (808) 579-9568; FAX: (808) 579-8516 Telex:510100 4385.

NFTA 94-01 January 1994