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Vol. 1, No. 1 - March, 1953 - pp. 6-10.

The Largest Mahogany Tree


by TAYLOR R. ALEXANDER

 

REAL FURNITURE MAHOGANY grows in the Everglades National Park as a native tree of the United States. Actually there are three mahoganies of commercial importance: West Indian (Swietenia mahogani) that grows in southern Florida and in the Caribbean area; tropical American (Swietenia macrophylla) that grows in Central and South America; and the African mahogany (Khaya ivorensis) from the West African coast. South Florida no longer has commercial quantities of the West Indian mahogany, although there are many trees still growing on the Florida Keys and the southern tip of the peninsula. Even as late as 1940 the writer has seen large mahogany logs being taken from the Keys and the Cape Sable area. Furthermore, the tree is extensively planted in southern Florida as a parkway and landscape tree and in some areas has seeded into adjacent pine woods.

To see the largest mahogany tree of the Park, one has to be prepared for a hard two and a half mile hike to the west through sawgrass, after leaving a point on the road to Cape Sable about fifteen miles south of the first ranger station. At this point the road turns due south from a west and southwesterly course. Mahogany trees are associated with jungle territory and the big trees of the Park are located in "hammocks" that are the nearest approach to jungle growth to be found on the U. S. mainland. These hammocks tend to be circular in shape and the largest in this area is about one-quarter of a mile in diameter. Looking west from the road the hammocks appear as dark, rounded mounds of trees low on the horizon and, as one walks, individual hammocks gradually take on form until a dark wall appears to spring abruptly from the sawgrass prairie. In this area one usually sees an eagle high overhead. In season hawks rise from their nests to scream their warning and fresh deer tracks tell the intruder that he has disturbed the peacefulness of the expansive area.

As one enters the hammock by following a deer path through the dense, tangled growth so characteristic of the margin of south Florida hammocks, peace and stillness return. The jungle opens and overhead is the canopy of tall trees; tropical mahogany and temperate zone Virginia oak. Smaller trees and shrubs are mostly of tropical source. Large vines grow everywhere and royal palms, cabbage palms, Paurotis palms, and saw palmetto add to the tropical appearance. Air plants—bromeliads, orchids, and ferns—grow in profusion on living limbs and fallen tree trunks. Strangler figs are everywhere. Underneath, the accumulation of leaf litter and leaf mold is deep and the impression is that here nature has been at work unhindered for years. Here the tropical plants meet their temperate neighbors. Here the salt marsh plants of nearby Florida Bay meet the fresh water plants of the Everglades. It is a transition zone and it is unique.

The large trees show hurricane damage often repeated and frequently a windfall is found. Root systems so exposed show that the hammock is, in a sense, "floating" on the marl prairie and actually the roots do not penetrate the underlying marl. The elevation is so near sea level that the water table is high all the year and thus prevents deep rooting. The trees actually create their own growing medium as their litter accumulates. On the margin of the hammock there is evidence that the jungle is invading the sawgrass prairie and year by year is slowly growing larger. Small and young trees occupy the margin. Inside near the center are the big parent trees.

There are large oaks and larger mahoganies. The largest mahogany found to date has been reported by the writer to the American Forestry Association as the largest of its kind in the United States and it has been so listed in their Big Three Project. Botany classes of the University of Miami have photographed, measured and studied these trees for several years. The largest has a circumference of twelve feet six inches, four and one-half feet above the ground, a crown spread of seventy-five feet and an estimated height of seventy feet. It is well preserved and has a clear butt log of twenty feet. This tree compares favorably with the commercial mahogany logs that average from nine to eighteen feet in circumference. However, in the true tropics they occasionally grow to thirty-seven feet in circumference.

Here in south Florida, even as in the tropics to the south, mahogany is "King of the Forest." Now that these trees are protected in this area they should become even more spectacular in centuries to come.



   
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