Best Tropical Woods from Central America

The rain forests of Central America are home to a great diversity of tropical hardwoods. As these forest lands come under increasing pressure for human settlement and agriculture, the only hope for keeping extensive areas forested is to grow tropical hardwoods in sustainable ways. There must be a market for sustainably-grown wood; otherwise, the forest lands will be converted to pastureland for the lucrative beef industry.

One of the best-known Central American woods is Spanish-cedar (Cedrela odorata and other Cedrela species). It is not a true cedar, but like the true cedars, it has aromatic wood, resistant to rot and termites. Spanish-cedar is in the mahogany family, which brings us to another important Central American wood, mahogany (3 species of Swietenia), treasured for its rich, dark, reddish color. A mahogany-paneled office indicates a very successful businessman, as this wood is costly as well as beautiful. Both these species also serve as examples of the need for sustainable forestry, as there is a black-market trade in both.

Another of the best Central American woods is Honduran rosewood (Dalbergia stevensonii and Dalbergia tucurensis). Like the more famous Brazilian rosewood, it has a purplish cast and takes a high polish. Overexploitation has greatly reduced the supply, once again emphasizing the need for sustainable forestry practices. Central America also produces other valuable woods of the genus Dalbergia; among these are cocobolo (Dalbergia retusa), with a heartwood of variable colors ranging from black, through red and orange, to yellow.

Canarywood (Centrolobium spp.) is also found in Central America. It has a rich yellowish or orange color. Bocote (Cordia eleagnoides), from Costa Rica, is extremely rare and may be extinct in the wild. We may hope that bocote wood on the market is from sustainably planted trees. It has a highly patterned wood, with dark grain on a pale background. Purpleheart (Peltogyne porphyrocardia) has a definite purple color.

There are many other hardwoods from Central America which may have value in specialized applications such as handicrafts and exotic furniture; but those listed here are the most valuable. The range of climate types in Central America is such that it may be possible to grow South American species there as well, and perhaps species from other parts of the world as well. Nevertheless, tropical rainforest biodiversity is under such threat in Central America – its narrow, mountainous landmass naturally restricts species’ ranges so that any forest clearing has a proportionately greater impact than clearing a comparable area in South America – growing Central America’s native species sustainably should be the primary concern.