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What is Cedrela?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 02 December 2016
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Cedrela is a genus of trees with seven species in the mahogany family, Meliaceae. The trees are all native to tropical and subtropical regions of Central and South America, ranging from southern Mexico to northern Argentina. Most are evergreen, keeping their leaves year-round, but some species are deciduous, losing their leaves in the dry season. The name Cedrela means "little cedar," as the wood of trees in this genus has similar properties to cedar, including its scent.

The most common Cedrela species is C. odorata, commonly called Spanish, Mexican, or West Indian cedar. This species also has the largest range within the genus, reaching from Mexico to Argentina. The species currently classified as C. odorata comprises what were 28 separate species prior to 1981. Consequently there is a great deal of variety within the species.

C. odorata trees reach heights of 30 to 100 feet (10 to 30 meters). They have a greyish brown bark, scythe-shaped leaves, and small, white flowers. The tree requires well drained soil, particularly limestone, and is tolerant of a long dry season.

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C. odorata is cultivated as an ornamental plant, as well as for its timber, which is aromatic, lightweight, durable, and naturally resistant to rot and termites. Like true cedar, Spanish cedar carries a scent that is pleasant to most people, but repellent to insects. C. odorata wood is traditionally used to make cigar boxes and the necks of classical and flamenco guitars. It is also popular in furniture, particularly pieces used to store clothing. The bark is used in traditional medicine to treat fever, malaria, and rheumatism.

It has also been used in beekeeping for honey production. The tree is of vulnerable conservation status, but it has also been naturalized outside its native range, in parts of Africa, Hawaii, and southeast Asia. In South Africa, the tree has become an invasive species.

The wood of other Cedrela species has many properties in common with C. odorata, but it is not commonly used because of poor conservation status. Many Cedrela species, such as C. fissilis and C. lilloi, are endangered due to habitat loss. C. montana, a species growing in Colombia and Ecuador, is verging on extinction due to overharvesting.

Many Cedrela species have a very limited geographical range. C. salvadorensis and C. tonduzii grow only in Central America. C. hirsuta is limited to the country of Paraguay, and C. huberi grows only in Argentina.

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