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Ebony tree in Mauritius
Ebony is a hard wooden tree that is found mostly in tropical rainforests in the African region, India and Indonesia. Worldwide about 300 species of ebony exist though many are not strict ebony trees; they are usually very dense and sink in water. Ebony is prized for its hard heartwood which is deep black (but can range in colour depending on the species and environment such as altitudes and mineral content). History reveals that many ancient customs associate it with purifying properties; for instance it is believed that drinking vessels made of ebony absorb all forms of poisons. Commercial uses of the wood include the making of artefacts, golf heads, canes and musical instruments. One of the best ebonies to make materials of is the African ebony which is very hard and polishes beautifully. The species that occur in Mauritius is the Black Ebony (Diospyros tesselaria; Bois d’ebene noir). These are evergreen plants that are erect and can reach up to 20m. The truck is thick with a dark bark (varying dark colours to a deep black). The leaves are quite thick being oval or oblong in shape with a dark green surface and paler underside and with distinct veins appearing on them. The flowers and fruits are generally small and vary in colour according to species. The seeds are oblong and dark brown in colour. The ebony trees were once found all over Mauritius. But when the Dutch discovered the island, they exploited it en mass for export towards the European countries as it was a strong and hard wood to make furniture and ships of. The Mauritius ebony is one of the best ebonies in the world and also the darkest which makes it very costly too. When the Dutch left, the number of ebony trees had decreased dramatically; this deforestation has also been associated with the extinction of the Dodo (the ebony forests were the natural homes of the birds that the Dutch also exploited for food). Today the ebony is a highly protected tree in Mauritius as few specimens remain. They can be seen in the remnants natural forests that exist in patches over the island and also on the Ile aux Aigrettes where the only coastal ebony forest remains now. As such a lot of conservation efforts are done to propagate the species and prevent them from going extinct where they are still found.