mahogany, common name for the Meliaceae, a widely distributed family of chiefly tropical shrubs and trees, often having scented wood. The valuable hardwood called mahogany is obtained from many members of the family; in America and Europe it is imported for cabinetmaking and similar uses. According to tradition it was first introduced to England from the West Indies when Sir Walter Raleigh had a mahogany table made for Queen Elizabeth I; the popularity of the wood increased steadily in the 18th cent. The different mahoganies vary in color from golden to deep red brown; most are close-grained and resistant to termites. The principal sources are the tropical American genus Swietenia (especially S. macrophylla, bigleaf mahogany, the present main source, and S. mahogani, West Indian mahogany, the historic main source) and the W African genus Khaya (especially K. ivorensis ).
Another important member of the family is the West Indian cedar, or cigar-box tree ( Cedrela odorata ), whose scented, insect-repellent wood is commonly used for cigar boxes. The wood of the chinaberry tree ( Melia azedarach ) of Asia, introduced to (and now naturalized in) the S United States, Africa, and the Mediterranean as an ornamental, is also used for lumber. The name mahogany is also given to numerous unrelated tropical trees that provide similar lumber.
The mahogany family is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Magnoliopsida, order Sapindales.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.