Mahogany specifically refers to four different species of tropical hardwood trees, three from South and Central America and one from Africa. Swietenia macrophylla, Swietenia humilis and Swietenia mahogani are native to the Americas and are often referred to as true or genuine mahogany. African or Khaya mahogany, a different species in the mahogany family, yields wood of similar pattern although lighter in colour. Many other unrelated species are marketed as mahoganies to increase their commercial popularity.
Known as Cuban, Spanish and true mahogany as well as several other common names, Swietenia mahogani became a major New World export to Europe in the 16th Century. The Spanish trade in this deep red hardwood supplied ship makers and furniture makers of Europe until the Cuban forests disappeared. Though still found in its natural range along the eastern portion of Central America and even in the southern tip of Florida, trees of commercial size are now rare.
Swietenia humilis, often known as Honduras mahogany, has local importance in Central America and Mexico as a traditional material for wood carvings. The striking colour and grain pattern as well as resonant quality and dimensional stability have made Honduras mahogany the choice of such speciality markets as the musical instrument industry and manufacturers of scientific instruments. Rare in many parts of its natural range, the tree is now protected but endangered.
Swietenia macrophylla or bigleaf mahogany accounts for most American mahogany lumber today. Lighter in colour than the two other American species, this mahogany shares many of the important commercial qualities. From 1960 to 2002 Brazil, Bolivia and Peru were the major exporters of bigleaf mahogany to the U.S. New restrictions on logging in both Brazil and Bolivia shifted the demand to Peru where regulations were not so intensively enforced. By 2004, 50 per cent of the mahogany forest in Peru had been cut.
African or Khaya mahogany, native to the African rainforests, is also a true mahogany but only distantly related to the American species. The wood of African mahogany is very light in colour in comparison to the American varieties, tending more towards pink than the deep red of Cuban or Honduras types. Rare trees of the Khaya variety may show distinctive grain patterns or figure that are very desirable as veneers. Khaya mahogany also yields valuable quarter-sawn lumber which displays the rays of the wood as well as the annual rings.
The high demand for mahogany products encourages logging and manufacturing industries to create mahogany names for trees which are not true mahoganies. Lauan, a widespread tree in the Philippine forests, is marketed in the United States as Philippine mahogany. Dozens of different species are marketed under that same arbitrarily chosen name. Other variety names are either invented, like the term royal mahogany, or refer to the locale where a tree was grown.