Belize has kept over 36% of its forest under protection and this is the highest rate in Central America.
Consequently, thousands of acres of natural healthy forests in the northwest, coastal north, west of the Maya Mountains, Winward slope of the Maya Mountains, and Toledo District are under conservation. These forests are full of insects, birds, mammals and primates such as the howler monkeys which can be heard from miles away and are an indicator of healthy ecosystems. The animals and birds benefit from, as well as assist, the tree species in our forests.
Wood is a most valuable resource from these forests that can bring environmental, social and economic advancement to Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) and rural workers in a sustainable circular economy.
By using wood in a legal and sustainable way, MSMEs both benefit from and protect forests under Belize’s forest laws which have successfully guarded individual timber species and entire forest ecosystems since 1927.
If we cut forests unsustainably, some of the outcomes would include:
- Changes in weather patterns.
- Disappearance of pollinator species like bees, then decline in agriculture leading to food scarcity.
- Landslide and landslips.
- Epic floods.
- Coastal erosion.
- Heating of our environment.
- Unavailability of forest foods such as fruits and game meat.
- Soil erosion.
- Scarcity of clean water
- Air pollution and poor air quality
- Lack of wood for building.
All of these have happened at isolated places in different parts of the world so it is very important for us to protect Belize’s forests to ensure that environmental tragedies do not impact our people. Our strategies for forest conservation can include management for wood, fiber, food, medicines, carbon sequestration, oxygen production, and protection of watersheds.
Survival of tropical tree species is important for goals such as these:
- Trees are the most efficient way to sequester carbon dioxide from the air.
- Trees safeguard soil water.
- Trees fix nitrogen from the air into protein. Belize has many forest trees which form symbiotic relationships with fungi and soil bacteria. Some of the bacteria are of the nodule forming Genus Rhizobium and Bradyrhizobium and these associations suck nitrogen from the air into plant proteins which are then transferred to the bodies of insects, birds, animals and us humans.
- Wood from plants is used for cooking and energy generation.
- Wood from trees is used for construction.
Besides being highly functional, a number of tree species in Belize enrich the landscape with greenery and flowers that attract many wild animals and birds into diverse ecosystems which are prized by people who love natural landscapes.
Trees also produce esteemed woods rich in color producing chemicals such polyphenols or terpenes that confer distinctive sweet or sharp smells like the rosy granadillo or the garlic smelling cedar.
In the 1960s the British recommended against establishing timber plantations in Belize. But in 2022 there is need to plant trees, especially on small private land holdings where rural residents need to protect their water sources and their agricultural land against erosion in this era of intense rainstorms. Below are some of the more important forest trees of Belize that we should all know about so that we can identify and value in natural forests, agroforestry or silvicultural plantations.
See our poster with samples of 22 wood species from Belize here. Comes with Velcro for easy mounting (2 minutes maximum) in your office or home. See and touch 22 beautiful woods from Belizean forests. Purchase now and the posters are shipped to you from the USA or Belize, depending on your location.
The posters are printed with a QR code that takes the viewer’s device to our website with information on the species of the woods of Belize. All posters come with four pairs of Velcro dots at the back so that the posters can be easily installed onto walls.
Mahogany is a canopy species and it requires strong light to grow fast. The leaves fall in April then trees bloom from May to June attracting moths and small bees which are responsible for pollination. The woody fruits burst around June and when this happens, winged seeds are released. These 4 inch seeds are bulky at the base where the embryos are located but have a propeller shaped wing at the opposite end. Once released from their pods, they fly like a helicopter, travelling many miles away from the mother tree if there is uplift from wind. They usually land with the embryo end stuck in the soil so when the rains begin, germination occurs, giving rise to new seedlings.
Mahogany seedlings are highly susceptible to a boring insect called Hypsipyla grandella that invades the shoot meristem. This insect bore causes the loss of auxin modulated apical dominance in the apical meristem and when this happens, the seedling begins to make lateral branches which divert away from a main bole, decreasing the volume and value of harvestable lumber in each tree when it becomes harvestable. For trees that manage to be Hypsipyla free, upon reaching the canopy after thirty or forty years, they can breach this forest layer and become dominant emergent specimens.
Countless numbers of men, women and children were kidnapped from Africa and trafficked by slave traders from Europe to the western hemisphere where they were forced to toil in West Indian sugar plantations in places like Jamaica or Barbados or “Mahogany works” in Belize. Here, the Africans fell very large trees before the tasks of rafting, squaring and loading onto ships bound for Britain and the United States. In Europe and North America, Mahogany was used in boat building, railway cart construction, furniture production and airplane propeller engineering during in WWI. The root of mahogany is sometimes harvested and made into carvings. There is no distinctive odor or taste from mahogany wood.
Cedar seeds are actually miniature one-inch versions of the larger mahogany seeds. Cedar wood has always been prized due to its similarity to mahogany for which it is an almost equal substitute. Its wide niche means that it is available in the north and south though specimens from the dryer north was preferred. The color and workability of the wood is similar to mahogany. However, the smell of cedar wood is unique and this is known to be due to a high content of δ (delta) cadinene (Vargas Suarez, V, Satayal, P and Setzer, W. 2018). This smell has attracted its use in cupboards and drawers used to store clothes as well as cigar boxes. Recently it was found that the cadinene may have value in the cosmetic fragrance industry and this sawdust derived product is commercially available from Colombia in South America.
Although Cedar and Mahogany woods are very similar, they can be distinguished by the naked eye. The cedar has much more lines but the distinguishing character are the tiny round dark colored dots within the lines. When the woods are viewed from the side, it is seen that cedar is a less dense with more air spaces between the fibers of woody tissue.
Santa Maria occurs from Mexico to southern Brazil and is one of the important hardwoods of Belize. The species has a wide niche, tolerating diverse acid and alkaline soils. It has been found that bats attack the larger specimens of the fruit and make germination easier for these. The bats act as “peelers” of the larger seeds which they distribute further away from the mother trees. Once germinated, seedlings of Calophylum brasilense are tolerant to hypoxia and waterlogging of soils. However, under nursery conditions, seedlings may be susceptible to pathogens like Sclerotium rolfsi that causes Damping Off. Nevertheless, Santa Maria is known to be adapted to survive and grow in seasonally inundated or flooded areas. For this reason, it can be a good species to rehabilitate flood prone lands.
Santa Maria in standing forests may reach 120 feet in height and attract massive lianas and epiphytes such as Paullinia, and Clusia.The wood of this species has been known for a long time in Belize but is not considered as valuable as mahogany so it is utilized for heavier construction as opposed to fine furniture because it tends to split and warp if not properly dried. With modern kilns and drying options, Santa Maria is seeing much more use as furniture.
In the dry forests to north of the country, one of the finer woods found is the Granadillo. Granadillo is a brown hardwood closely related to Rosewood which is from the extreme south where rainforests actually exist. Despite being similar, the woods are distinct such that the grains in Granadillo are considerably more oily and consequently softer and easier to cut. The wood is sawn into lumber and made into fine furniture such as tables and desks in addition to crafts such as turned bowls and small gifts.
The color of Granadillo is more orange to woody brown with bands wider than rosewood which has lighter colored grains that alternate with more shades including purple and brown. Granadillo also has a distinctive sweet smell but not as sharp and fine as rosewood.Mature Granadillo trees grow to between 85 to 100 feet high depending on the soil and the competition in the forest structure. The species is a legume which flowers during the months of February to March and provides food for bees. It tolerates a wide range of soil fertility but larger numbers of these trees are said to be in the drier north of the country.
This is legume tree traditionally referred to as Honduras Rosewood and is part of a complex rainforest ecosystem in the extreme south of Belize. Rosewood is one of the finest design woods in the world. This species is found on rivers, low lying areas prone to water logging and swamps. It is integral in the health of soils because of its active symbiotic nitrogen fixation functions. These trees support large populations of bees which feed on the yellow flowers that burst in July followed by fruiting in August. A large population of insects and birds benefit from the fruiting.Rosewood has been harvested from Belize since the late 1800s but recent demand from Asia has put pressure on this resource and the Government of Belize had placed a moratorium on the exportation of this species. However, exportation from community managed forests is done.
The wood is prized because of its grains, hardness, color, and musical quality. Its traditional use was in the manufacturing of bars for marimbas but the species is now considered a status symbol as finishing in the homes of the wealthy in Asia. The sound of rosewood is metallic to glasslike. When being worked, its smell is sweet rosy but finer than Granadillo. It is pinkish-brown to purple with alternating dark and light zones and when freshly cut, it may appear light purple. With age, it becomes brown. The sapwood is yellow. There has been over extraction of the species in Central America including Belize.
A strikingly beautiful and rare wood of the Belizean forest is the Redwood. The natural range is from southern Mexico to as far as Nicaragua but it is around the Yucatan that the natural diversity seems to be concentrated. The trees grow as high as 80 feet. It is not often that lumber of this wood is found in sawmills and because this species is becoming very rare in the countryside, efforts should be made to safeguard elite trees as source of seeds.
The wood is prized for its true red color which is uncommon in nature. It can range from pink to blood red and indeed it produces a natural dye that can be used on plant based fabrics like cotton or silk. This could be an important cultural industry for Belize. If it is used as wood, it is hard, heavy, strong, fine-textured, easy to work, finishes smoothly, and suitable for articles of turnery and carvings.
One of the ornate woods of Belize is Jobillo. The tree grows to about 110 feet and is more common in the north because it prefers a calcitic soil. It is upright but can be branchy in the open. It has been found that Jobillo fruits are an important diet of canopy dwelling parrots who disperse the seeds. Because parrots and jobillo are interdependent, it is important to conserve both species. Although not scarce, jobillo is less available than in the 1990s, suggesting the need for replanting.
The wood is highly valued because of its variegated coloration blending dark orange and black. It is very easy to cut, turn, drill, nail etc and is used to make very fine furniture and handicraft. However, if left outside, the wood can be susceptible to attack by the boring insect Brasilianus mexicanus or termites after harvesting so it should be quickly processed and delivered to manufacturers for storage indoors.
This is a species that occurs throughout the country, including the broken ridge, but more frequently in the south where there is more rain. They can thrive in soils that are less fertile and a bit acidic. There is a wide gene pool in this species and it is resistant to pests and diseases.
The wood has traditionally been used for heavy applications such as house construction, bridges, pallets and doors but a number of companies in Belize have used it for furniture. There is little differentiation between the sap and the heart which are both yellow to pale green and brown. There may be streakage of pink or red.
Mylady is a straight boled Central American and South American species that can reach up to 100 ft high. Young trees are used in Belize as construction posts but when the trees become large, they are used as lumber. Even when exposed to soil, the wood is resistant to insects and fungi. It has been used in the past as railroad ties and now as parts of wooden bridges, house posts, heavy carpentry or industrial flooring.
The wood is pale yellowish brown with no differentiation between the sapwood and heart. It is hard and strong and difficult to saw by hand. Mylady has also seen usage in traditional medicine.
The Red Mylady is very close to Mylady in most characteristics. However the main difference is that the wood of the Red Mylady has distinct red streaks throughout.
One of the most beautiful woods of Belize is Che Chem, or Black Poison Wood. Its colors include black, brown, red, orange, green, gold and yellow. It may have some ill repute owing to urushiol in the bark which is a defense mechanism of this species. This urushiol has caused dangerous allergic reactions in many people. If a tree is wounded, it may produce an indicative tarlike sap of the urushiol and this is a strong warning sign to stay away.
There can be dense stands of poison wood in forests throughout the country and many rural dwellers state that, where there are poinsonwood, there will always be Gumbo Limbo trees nearby and that these provide the antidote to poisonwood allergies. The poison wood can bear prolific flowers which attract many bees. Fruits from this species are small and red and attract many birds.
Katalox is also referred to as Purple Heart in Belize but this is different from the Peltogyne Purple Heart found in South America. Katalox is a branching lowland tree found more in the north of the country, as well as southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras. This species prefers limestone based soils and hot weather and it produces a bright yellow fruit which attracts lowland bird species such as chachalacas, guans, currasows, orioles and animals including deer and tapirs.
The Katalox wood is very hard and dense and is now being marketed as Mexican Ebony. When freshly cut, the wood may be discernibly dark purple but on exposure to air, it becomes black. It is used to make fine boxes, musical instruments, and flooring but owing to its density, it is hard to work. Katalox is most attractive when the lumber contains the dark heartwood and the yellow sapwood together.
Salmwood is a species in the Genus Cordia which tolerates a wide variation of soil, altitudes and climate. It is used extensively in agroforestry systems in Central America to provide shade for cacao or coffee.
Salmwood has grown in importance because of its workability and the contrast in brown and tan coloration. It is certainly not as ornate as Zericote but it has many applications in-home or office furniture. Processing this wood, cutting or drilling causes a soapy smell.
Zericote is one of the more beautiful woods of Belize with beige, brown, gray and black colorations, lines and abstract non symmetrical growth. The wood is heavy and dense but easy to cut, turn and carve. It carries a soapy smell similar to Sandalwood when worked mechanically. The chemistry of Zericote is different from most woods because of its alkaline pH and its unusually high amount of waxes, fats, resins, phytosterols and nonvolatile hydrocarbons. It is because of these chemicals that the blackness of this species takes on a very shiny and beautiful luster. The laws of Belize state that it is illegal to export zericote logs and lumber as this resource is reserved for value addition in the country.
Belizean craft persons use this resource to make carvings, turned or hewn bowls, boxes or some furniture for tourists and locals. A food preserve much like jam is made from the fruits up north in the Orange Walk and Corozal districts.The species occurs mostly in the north of the country and may be found in low and poorly drained areas. The trees can be as high as 80 feet high. The species only occurs naturally in Belize, southern Mexico and Guatemala and Belize is said to be in the center of diversity so it is important for us to conserve and begin to plant this highly demanded timber. Zericote is in the same Genus as Salmwood but the former is more of a northern plant while the latter is found throughout the country.
This is a beautiful wood that is highly functional owing to its hardness and strength. Originally used as wheels for oxen carts, it is now used in furniture and valued for the shine it takes. The sapwood is yellow and contrasts with the streaked reddish-brown of the hearthwood. Although it is hard to cut, its color contrast has caused more and more craftsmen to begin using it in furniture making.
One of the hardest woods in Belize is the Sapodilla. Some of the trees older than 50 years can still be seen with the cut marks that were used to extract the sap as part of the chicle industry. These trees occur mostly on alkaline clayey soils and produce a sugary fruit called sapodilla or chicozapote which is small on most wild trees. However there are specimens with large fruits and some of these trees have been propagated and planted in fruit orchards especially in southern Mexico and Guatemala. The sapodilla wood is brown to pink and very hard so it is difficult to saw, drill or nail. There are few insects or fungi willing to attack this very hard wood so farmers have used it as fence posts.
An iconic riparian giant is the Bullet Tree which can be a commanding emergent specimen on riverbanks and fertile areas where they live to reach over 110 ft in height. Yet, in swampy locations, the species will be much smaller. The Bullet Tree occurs throughout the Caribbean and along the Caribbean Coastal Plains of Central America.
The sapwood is white and the heart greenish brown. The wood is very dense and hard, hence its local name referring to a bullet. It can take a luster and has been used in diverse applications from floors to handicrafts.
One of Belize’s species that has recently gained use in fine furniture assembly is Prickly Yellow. The species seems to favor the acidic soils of the Maya Mountains but it does occasionally occur on limestone and alluvia soils. In actuality, this resource comprises a group of six very closely related species all of which have large prickles covering the bole of the trees, hence the name, Prickly Yellow. The trees can reach 100 ft high.
The wood is bright yellow in color when freshly cut and it has little distinction between the sap and heartwood. The strong yellow coloration in these species indicate high concentrations of phytochemicals including alkaloids, amides, flavonoides, sterols and terpenes. After it is cut, the wood wood fades in color to baije or olive colored. In Belize and some parts of Central America, the prickles and wood are boiled and used in pharmacology.
With the diversification of the timbers used in Belize away from mahogany and cedar, a number of our craftsmen have begun using Prickly Yellow for office furniture.
This is a canopy species native to the lowlands from southern Mexico, through Meso America and into the Amazon. In our country, the trees prefer calcareous soils with outcropping rocks and they grow up to 120 feet. They are a strong nitrogen fixer enriching the soil and promoting healthy insect populations which are attracted to the white flowers.
The bark was traditionally used as a tonic containing an alkaloid previously called sweetina which we now know as saccharin. The species has been used in Belize as a medicinal to treat fever, malaria, stomach ailments, diarrhea, respiratory diseases, and it is said to lower blood sugar.
The Billy Webb is also an important hardwood of Belize. The sapwood is yellow-white to light brown and the heart is dark brown but not black. It has been used in heavy construction but over the past 20 years it has seen increasing use in furniture.
Yemeri is a species in one of the forest associations which Belizeans call “Broken Ridge.” This term suggests its loose association with the Pine Ridge which overlay the acidic Ultilsol soils. Thus, the Yemeri are in forests which occur in the transition zone from infertile pine forests to more nutrient rich broadleaf forests. Yemeri are upright trees with limited lateral branching. When they occur, they are often in dense stands. They can grow on infertile sandy soils or heavy clays but do not tolerate waterlogging. At maturity, the trees may reach 90-120 feet and the flowers are yellow. The wood is pale yellow, light and saws easily. There are no defined growth rings or designs.
This is the most common conifer species found in Belize’s various “Pine Ridges” in the lowlands and most of the Mountain Pine Ridge below 1500 feet elevation. The range is the Caribbean coast of Central America from Nicaragua to as far north as the Yucatan Peninsula. This species is adopted to senile and heavily weathered soils of very low (acidic) pH because the roots are entangled by a network of fungal mycelium called mycorrhiza which assist the plants to maximize nutrient uptake from poor soils.
The wood is yellow brown with distinctive grains and whorls which are broader than the other native pine of Belize. The wood contains knots and the heartwood is generally golden-brown to red-brown and distinct from the lighter sapwood. There is a very strong odor of resin from the Caribbean Pine. The species is used extensively in construction, interiors and the production of electrical power poles used by Belize Electricity Limited. It is susceptible to the Southern Pine Beetle (Dendroctonus frontalis) and Ambrosia (Xyleborus) beetles which cause pinholes in the wood.
Named in honor of Mr. Tecún Umán, a Mayan chief who defended his homeland in Guatemala against the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century, Pinus tecunumanii is native to Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Belize. In our country, it lives at elevations above 1,500 ft in the higher parts of the Maya Mountains. The bole is straight and specimens can grow as high as 165 feet high.
The wood of the Tecún Umani pine is distinctly different from the Caribbean pine. Firstly, the odor and resinous touch of the Tecún Umani pine is much less pronounced than the Caribbean pine. Secondly, the grains of the Tecún Umani pine are thinner and tighter. Although this species has only recently been documented and described, it is said to have potential for production in plantations and industrialization for pulping but this is not likely in Belize as it is found only in remote high mountain protected forests which are unlikely to be disturbed or felled for establishment of plantations.