I had purchased a selection of pen blanks packaged together and two of those pieces were labeled as “Jacaranda.” I didn’t think much of it, turned the blanks and made notes to come back to later. In researching “Jacaranda” I have uncovered one of the more confusing uses of wood-related terms I have yet discovered.
Jacaranda is believed to derive from the Guarani-Tupi languages of western Brazil, western Bolivia, and Paraguay, perhaps as far south even as Uruguay. The word meant something like “a wood that is dark.” The word was more or less adopted by the Portuguese in Brazil and applied to several woods.
Meanwhile, as the classification of all things into the Linnaean system moved forward, “Jacaranda” became the name of a genus of trees and shrubs which today includes some 49 distinct species. All Jacaranda species plants and trees originate in South America but they have been widely exported as ornamental plants, particularly to temperate areas of North America, especially the West Coast and Florida, to parts of Asia, and especially to Australia, where many residents, so familiar with the Jacaranda species, particularly since it has now naturalized outside of gardens through the prolific seed pods, believe the genus to be a native plant, when of course it is anything but.
All of this means that when presented with a piece of wood labeled as “Jacaranda” you have to sort of wonder what, exactly, you have ahold of.
One possibility is that you actually have a wood more commonly known as Brazilian Rosewood, scientifically known as Dalbergia nigra. Some of you will recognize the Dalbergia genus as it contains several very popular tropical woods known for their lustrous dark color and figure. Some will refer to D. nigra as Bahia Rosewood, or less commonly, Jacaranda. This sort of makes sense historically given that D. nigra is a dark wood and thus fits the original Guarani-Tupi language meaning of the term.
Alternatively, the term Jacaranda may also be applied to samples of a wood scientifically known as Machaerium villosum. The tree from which this wood is derived is found only in Brazil and it is listed as a threatened species due to habitat loss. This wood may also be known and sold as: Jacarandá-do-Cerrado, Jacarandá-Pardo, Jacarandá-Paulista, Jacarandá-Pedra, or Jacarandá Para. The accents may give it away, but these terms are most commonly associated with Spanish or Portuguese speaking people. This wood does find use as a fine tone wood, so luthiers are the ones most likely to be familiar with it.
To make matters even cloudier, some retailers will use the term Jacaranda in reference to any wood commonly known as any type of Rosewood, regardless of actual species. I found one retailer referring to Bocote from Central America, Cordia sp, as Jacaranda as well. It is buyers beware market out there with so many common names referring to so many different woods. For example, the term “rosewood” doesn’t always means Dalbergia, although purists will insist that only Dalbergia species trees actually yield “true” rosewoods. Do your research!
Finally, we arrive at what I believe my samples of Jacaranda to actually be, and that is wood from the Jacaranda mimosifolia, most likely harvested in Africa, as the collection I purchased was sold as African pen blanks. This tree is almost always an ornamental tree, although it can certainly attain adequate size to be cut into timber, even if this isn’t a common usage. I believe my samples to be J. mimosifolia based on the light coloration of the wood which is at complete odds with either Dalbergia sp or Machaerium sp. Also, the identification as African wood if most likely to be J. mimosifolia as that is the most common Jacaranda species in Africa having been widely planted as an ornamental but in some cases becoming invasive in wild areas through outcompeting native species.
While a fair amount is recorded about the characteristics of Dalbergia woods, very little is recorded about the timber character of J. mimosifolia as it is almost always an ornamental tree little used for timber purposes.
The tree itself is a native of the sub-tropical regions of South America. It is best known for its profuse lavender colored blossoms that appear in late spring/early summer. These colorful profusions account for its popularity as an ornamental tree, although the bloom fall and the seed pods can present a cleaning nuisance depending on location. The trees can reach heights of up to 49 feet, so they can be quite good sized given time to grow.
As noted, the J. mimosifolia tree has been widely exported. In the United States, it grows in parts of Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, Texas, and Florida. In Europe it is found along the Mediterranean coast of Spain, in southern Portugal, especially in Lisbon), and southern Italy where Naples and Cagliari are known for quite beautiful specimens. J. mimosifolia was introduced to Africa by way of Cape Town by Baron von Ludwig in about 1829. It is regarded as an invasive species in parts of South Africa. Elsewhere in Africa, Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, and Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, see the growth of many Jacarandas. The tree is potentially problematic in Queensland, Australia as the Blue Jacaranda has prevented the growth of some native species.
Little to nothing is recorded about the wood working characteristics of J. mimosifolia due to its status as primarily an ornamental. I can find no references as to its hardness, density, porosity, or grain structure, let alone how it responds to wood working tools and techniques. I can only offer my limited impressions below.
As J. mimosifolia is not a common timber tree, I am unable to locate any vendors offering it for sale and therefore cannot comment on pricing. My pieces were purchased as part of a set, I believe from Woodcraft, and as such were not priced individually, but the complete set sells for $50 USD for 32 blanks, including 2 of Jacaranda.
For the dedicated wood hunter, Woodfinder is an excellent website that is dedicated to advertising exotic wood dealers. In your search for wood, this can be an invaluable resource provided you use multiple search terms to capture all the possible listings. I can’t speak to the quality of any of the listed dealers, but Woodfinder does have the advantage of allowing searches to be performed based on location which might allow an interested buyer to visit a listed wood dealer in person to hand pick pieces at a comfortable price.
Regrettably, my search of Woodfinder for Jacaranda failed to reveal a vendor. While four were listed under the search term of Jacaranda, on further investigation, none of them had any to offer for sale, and they may have been cross-referencing stocks of Brazilian Rosewood of the Dalbergia species, as has been noted to happen. Even the very reliable source, The Wood Database, cross-references in this way.
If a wood worker has a particular interest in working with Jacaranda, I would recommend consulting a specialist in Australian woods as the trees are most widely naturalized on that continent and specialist dealers might have sources if an interested buyer presented themselves. Lee Tree Wood of Georgia is such a specialist retailer that it might be worthwhile to contact if interested. Specialist dealers in African wood might also stock the wood. Oddly, it doesn’t seem to be harvested commercially on its home continent of South America.
Alternatively, if one lives in one of the areas listed as commonly home to ornamental specimens, connecting with a tree service might be an excellent way to obtain green samples, potentially of small size from branches, but still adequate for pen making.
Although they do not stock Jacaranda wood at this time, I always recommend both West Penn Hardwoods and Bell Forest Products as excellent sources of both domestic and exotic hardwoods. I have had multiple dealings with both vendors and have always been very satisfied.
As J. mimosifolia is not a common timber wood, there are no known or recorded common uses of it in such a capacity. Obviously, I used it for pen making and it seems to have served this purpose without difficulty, but beyond that I cannot comment.
J.mimosifolia is not listed with either the Convention in International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Appendices or the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as being threatened or endangered, but that doesn’t mean that conservation and good forestry practices shouldn’t be of overall concern when working with or purchasing any species.
However, other woods sometimes sold as “Jacaranda” have not fared so well. Machaerium villosum is on the IUCN Red List as “Endangered” and one should think carefully before using a wood with such a status, at least in my opinion.
Dalbergia nigra is also listed in CITES Appendix I and is on the IUCN Red List. It is listed as vulnerable due to a population reduction of over 20% in the past three generations caused by a decline in its natural range and exploitation. Again, personal discretion regarding the use, and continued encouraged exploitation of, endangered natural species is ultimately a matter of personal conscience.
It realize that many, if not most, wood workers do not have such endangered species lists memorized, therefore I think it worthwhile and important to do even a small amount of research before purchased any lumber, domestic as well as imported, to be certain of the potential impact you are having, even in a small way, on threatened or endangered populations. This information is easy to come by and takes only minutes to locate through any Internet search engine. You simply cannot count on a vendor to tell you a product they are selling is endangered!
There are no known reports of reactions associated with J. mimosifolia because, in part I suspect, it is not commonly used. However, some gardening sources claim that all plant parts are poisonous if ingested, and that plant contact can result in skin irritation or allergic reaction, including pollen contact.
Appropriate protective equipment is therefore recommended, as always, when working with this, or any other, wood, unless you have worked with the species before and are certain you are not sensitive to it. However, given the potential uncertainty about identification, it is possible that one sample might be quite different from another even if labeled the same, and caution is almost always rewarded.
Complete information about health hazards associated with a wide variety of hardwoods both domestic and exotic is available from The Wood Database. Additional information about how to best use a dust collection system and personal protective equipment, such as respirators, can also be found through this excellent and comprehensive resource.
Fortunately, I experienced no negative side effects when working with the small pieces of wood that were identified to me as Jacaranda.
My Personal Experiences
I only had two small pen blank sized pieces of wood identified as Jacaranda to work with so my experience is quite limited. However, I found the wood to be moderately soft with an open grain and closed pores. It sanded quite well even though, as is often true of softer woods, it cut roughly on the lathe. There was no detectable oil present but there was a very slight sweet scent when freshly cut. The wood was very pale, almost white, with a slight beige figure. This coloration is completely foreign to any members of the Dalbergia species and also quite unlike Machaerium villosum, serving to convince me that the wood was from the J. mimosifolia tree.
I had a decent experience working with the Jacaranda wood and wouldn’t be reluctant to work with it again, although limited availability and limited appeal given its lack of color or figure both serve to make further experimentation unlikely. However, if a wood turner has a source of the wood, I certainly wouldn’t discourage experimentation, if someone wanted to give me pieces, I would accept them gladly. Experimenting with new woods is always fun and informative!