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Some Information About the Mpingo Tree

The African blackwood tree is a member of the rosewood family, with taxonomic classification in the family Leguminosae, genus Dalbergia, species melanoxylon. Its name refers to the dark color of its heartwood, which appears black and is derived from the Greek mela, or melanos, which means black. The Swahili language used in Tanzania gives it the name mpingo. Historically, it seems that mpingo is the African ebony of antiquity, referred to in records dating to Egyptian times. In today's terminology the name 'ebony' is commonly used for a different species, Diosporos spp., which also has black heartwood, but is more brittle, less lustrous and lacks many of mpingo's other superb woodworking characteristics. Apparently, it is only in the last several centuries that the name ebony has been associated with Diosporos spp. to enhance its commercial value, and this accounts for the confusion associated with the name ebony being applied at different times to these two entirely separate species.

African blackwood is also referred to as Grenadilla in the woodwind instrument trade, though this name of Spanish origin likely refers to a wood of Central American origin. Cocuswood, from the Caribbean, was the wood of choice for woodwind instruments until about 1900, when it was effectively logged out as a commercial species and the alternative found to replace it was East African Ebony, or African Blackwood.

Robert Lamb, who was a consultant on the "Tree of Music" video and appeared in the film, writes about this confusion between ebony and African blackwood, "A sunken vessel was found somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean with a cargo of (among other things) wooden billets that were analysed as blackwood. The key thing is that the cargo manifest was also found with the vessel carved on a clay tablet in Egyptian hieroglyphics, listing ebony as part of the cargo. The hieroglyphics transliterate as HBNI and the etymology of "ebony" is from Egyptian via Greek, so this is fairly solid evidence I think.

"Foresters will get hot under the collar if you tell them this, as the ebony of the furniture inlay trade in Europe was undeniably the South Asian tree Diospyrus melanoxylon but this was assigned the name later to add value. There was little or no sea trade between South Asia and ancient Egypt but plenty with Nubia (latter day Sudan) where Dalbergia was common in early historic time but was presumably logged out for the wood. Tomb artifacts from pyramid burials are mpingo in every case I've heard of where they checked this out with spectography."

mpingo_sprout.jpg (22728 bytes)Mpingo grows in the savannah grasslands of east-central Africa, although it is more common in the coastal lowlands. It is found in the drier parts of the country, apart from desert scrub, and can be frequently found in mixed deciduous forest, but less so in Western miombo (lowland woodland) country. Its leaves provide fodder for the great migrating herds along the Serengeti plain; its roots have a nitrogen-fixing effect and so serve to increase the soil's fertility. The more mature trees have the ability to survive the sweeping grass fires which occur in the area. An mpingo seed which has recently sprouted its first primary leaves is shown in the photo at left.

Mpingo does not grow in thick stands or under closed cover but prefers a more solitary existence, often taking hold in rocky and infertile soils where other plants cannot survive. This characteristic seems to derive from its inability to compete successfully with other plants. During its early years it develops an extensive system of roots to sustain its life during the long months of the African dry season. Its growth is incremental; it takes 70-200 years to attain a usable size. Most trees do not exceed a height of 9 m. (about 30 feet) and rarely exceed 0.3 m. (1 foot) in diameter. Some prize specimens have been reported with a 1 m. (3 feet) diameter and a 5 m. (16 feet) clear bole, but these were rare treasures of the woodlands and very old trees grown under excellent conditions.

The woodland which once stretched from Senegal to Ethiopia and south to South Africa has suffered considerable decline due to poor management, and now the main stands of blackwood occur in Southern Tanzania and northern Mozambique, with about 60% of the trees in Mozambique and 40% in Tanzania. Most blackwood is harvested from these two countries. Smaller stands are also found in southern and eastern Africa: in Angola, Botswana, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Sudan, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and to a lesser extent, in the Central African Republic, Chad, Cote d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Senegal and Zaire.

Because of the recent long civil war in Mozambique, much of the mpingo harvest has come from Tanzania over the last 20 years. Now that the war has ended, it is expected that an increased tourist trade will create a greater demand for carvings made of the wood, and stands of mpingo in Mozambique will again be utilized for commercial purposes. In Tanzania, most of the information available suggests that the occurrence of the species is becoming more scattered and its abundance is decreasing.

Once considered plentiful in the 1930s, carvers now have to make extended journeys from their local villages in order to find suitable mature trees large enough for their work. There are reports that woodcarvers in Malawi and Kenya, finding it increasingly difficult to obtain adequate supplies of wood, are now importing it in some cases.

International companies which log the wood for the instrument industry are having to travel longer distances for suitable wood as well. Botanists are concerned that, with consistent logging of only large trees with a straight bole, the genetic strain itself is becoming inferior since seeds from such prime specimens are increasingly less available. These economic realities simply increase the danger of illegal felling in protected areas. It is a protected species in Tanzania, but the country lacks the resources to enforce the laws limiting its use.

Despite these numerous signs of its decline there have been few initiatives attempting to regulate trade or to plant sustainable forests. In 1994 Kenya and Germany proposed its inclusion on the CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) list, but after discussion the proposal was withdrawn.

At this point most of the hesitation to label it as vulnerable or endangered seems to lie in the fact that so little is known about it. No large scale measures have been taken to adequately ascertain its true range, its rate of depletion, or its characteristics of propagation and growth. Even export and marketing data is insufficient to properly determine its true rate of usage. International organizations, cautious of upsetting the economies of both the countries of import and export, have declined to take action without further research. Although it is obvious that all parties are increasingly uncomfortable about depletion of the resource, at this point, lumbering and export proceed unabated. This, despite the fact that some observers project Tanzanian sources will be used up within 20 years.

Many studies have been conducted and are ongoing by such conservation groups as Fauna and Flora International/SoundWood. One of the most informative is a Master's dissertation written in 1995 by Hazel Sharman who received support from FFI. It is called "Investigation into the Sustainable Management of a Tropical Timber Tree Species, using Dalbergia Melanoxylon as a Case Study." Speaking of the status of the tree, she writes, "Whilst it may not be biologically or ecologically threatened, it may well be commercially threatened. The constant removal of individuals with the same characteristics will be extremely harmful to the population structure, possibly resulting in genetic erosion. The end result may be a constant decline in the population until it is commercially extinct, leaving, if any, a population structure which may not be able to reproduce and that if it can, will reproduce individuals without those characteristics so highly prized by the trade and human society and a population weak and vulnerable to natural disaster and environmental change. There is a definite need for the implementation of an effective and applicable management strategy. What must be recognised is that utilisation of Dalbergia melanoxylon is not going to stop whether legally or illegally, but this utilisation should at the very least be managed and monitored. What must be addressed is how scientific knowledge can be mobilised most effectively to ensure the persistence and protection of the trade, and species itself."

FFI also sponsored an international conference in 1995 in Maputo, Mozambique to map out a regional conservation and management strategy for mpingo. In October, 2001, another conference discussing the issues surrounding mpingo was conducted by FFI in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

A fact sheet about mpingo gathered from information presented in the video, "The Tree of Music," has been created to give a brief overview about the tree and the issues surrounding it.

Sebastian Chuwa, who has spent many years working with this tree, has written a monograph compiling botanical information gathered from this experience. It is reproduced below. Photos of the seeds and seed pods can viewed here.

Information and Conservation of the Mpingo Tree
(Dalbergia melanoxylon Guill & Perr.) in Tanzania

By Sebastian M. M. Chuwa

The mpingo (African Ebony) produces heartwood with properties making it eminently suitable for the manufacture of traditional carvings and musical instruments. Since it is a very hardy tree often growing in situations where productive agriculture is rendered impossible by shallow and rocky soil, it offers a way to obtain some revenues from otherwise useless sites and it has potential as a foreign exchange earner.

It is a much-branched, many-stemmed, spiny, deciduous tree loosing its foliage in the dry season, or shrub of dry woodland and savannah that grows up to 10-15 m tall. The leaves are pinnate with 3-5 leaflets, the flowers are white and sweetly-scented and the fruits are a blunt pinnate pod with 1-4 seeds. Flowering takes place in the second dry season, covering most of the branches when the tree is leafless. Pods mature about 7 months after flowering. The trunk or bark is pale grey to pale brown and the bole is often deeply fluted but usually under 1.5 m long to the first major branch, and under 30 cm in diameter and often finely scored in the wild. It commonly has more than one stem. Large trees may have low buttresses. Especially on the branches and on the boles of younger trees there are scattered straight, conical, pale-colored spines which often bear leaves and flowers. In older trees there are irregular flaky patches. It is a heavily branched tree and the crown is usually rather irregular and rather open though in well-developed individuals it is more rounded and heavier.


The mpingo grows from Transvaal in South Africa to Senegal in Western Africa north of Ethiopia, Angola and in western India. The Africa range is extensive mainly in Tanzania and the quantities widespread in the protected areas like Tarangire National Park, Mikumi National Park, Selous Game Reserve, Pugu and Kazimzumbwi Forest Reserve in Coastal forests. There are low quantities in the northern part of Tanzania, e.g. along the Great Rift Valley (Lake Eyasi) and Kilimanjaro.


The association of mpingo with tropical lowlands subject to a seasonal climate indicates it is favored by a high mean temperature over 20 C with considerable difference between the extreme values. Many of Tanzanian localities for mpingo receive mean rainfall in the range of 600-800 mm (24-32 in). Mpingo exists in various adverse sites and its association with these reflects its own hardiness, but it seems unable to compete effectively with other species where conditions are better. The attention has been drawn to the better development of trees in fairly fertile situations such as termite mounds and moist deep soils near water-courses. This suggests that the species displays tolerance of poor conditions more than adaptation to them.


The results of my observation show that growth rates for planted trees is high. In the first five years well tended trees increase in height by about 0.3 - 1 m. a year, and in diameter by 1.5-2 cm. a year. In the wild for the first 5-8 years, they increase in height by about 0.5-0.7 m. a year and diameter by by 1-1.4 cm a year.


Mpingo seed germinates readily and can be used to raise the tree. Seeds can be stored but viability is retained for only one year. There are 40,000-45,000 seeds in one Kg. Seedlings grow well in clean, weeded conditions. The first germination in seedbed or direct in seedpots with watering starts in about 11 days; then they can be transplanted to seedling pots in about 4-5 weeks. Planting after 6-7 months in the rainy season gives better results than later planting.


Traditionally the wood has been used for hoes, fuel, charcoal, pestles, combs, cups and knife handles. Because of its high density, its fine texture and waxiness, it is ideal for the production of woodwind musical instruments like clarinets, as it can hold the metal fittings and does not absorb water, in addition to having a good tone and looking attractive. It is also used for piano keys and the fret boards of guitars. Other uses include the manufacture of bearing slides, abacus parts, chessmen, paper knives and for marquetry. Because of the relative rarity of high quality pieces mpingo wood commands a high price. Sawn logs currently sell at US $ 9,000 per cubic meter while processed timber for clarinets fetches up to US $ 13,000 per cubic meter. The Tanzania woodcarvers (the Makonde tribe) living in the southeast of the country produce a wide range of objects for the tourist markets from candlesticks to decorative combs and religious statues. In Tanzania, there has been some concern expressed about the conservation of mpingo. It is not a threatened species as it is so widespread and grows in protected areas. Because of demand for the mpingo trees there will be shortages of export quality wood. Coppicing power is reduced by the time trees reach the sizes prescribed for exploitation, though younger plants coppice more successfully. Clearance by cutting of land with abundant mpingo is followed by the appearance of numerous coppice shoots, rootsuckers and seedlings in the following rainy season. In the natural state in early years mpingo passes through a suffrutex phase when for several years the shoots produced are not perennial. While this reflects the plants’ adaptation to withstand fire, it is not a desirable attribute if the shortest possible exploitation cycle is to be adopted.


The mpingo is a good tree in Tanzania for planting in the coastal and interior lowland zones from 0-3500 ft above sea level, with individual trees to be harvested as appropriate. It is recommended to plant trees in numbers, and mix with some faster growing species which do not create too heavy a shade. Mpingo grows in full light under natural circumstances. Education provided to farmers and our youths about this important species is very much needed.



ABCP Website maintained by James E. Harris, 2000.
Last revised 21 Apr 2008.