(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 flakey 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 favoured 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 - 1m 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 intruments 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 metre while processed timber for clarinets fetches up to US $ 13,000 per cubic metre. 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 MPING0. 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 sucessfully. Clearance by cutting of land with abundant MPlNGO 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.

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Last revised June 8, 1996.