Jacaranda offers great beauty and good wood carvings

Jacaranda mimosifolia is native to South America but grows widely in other parts of the world. It is famous for its blue trumpet-shaped flowers that adorn its many branches in breathtaking beauty in full bloom.

It is this beauty that attracted me to the jacaranda. It was the very first tree I planted in Kapchai in April 1980 when I was in Class Six. Of the four I planted, two survived and they are 40 years old this year.

Jacaranda was first introduced in Africa via Cape Town in 1829 before spreading to the rest of the continent.

According to Kenya Forestry Research Institute (Kefri) Guide to Tree Planting in Kenya, it grows in ecological zones of between 1,600 and 2,500 metres above sea level and annual rainfalls of 800-1,400mm.

It has various uses, which include medicine, fuel and timber. In traditional medicine, its flowers, leaves and bark are used to ease severe pain caused by damaged or malfunctioning nerves. Hot jacaranda leaf baths are said to treat wounds, skin infections and acne.

The tree also has qualities that treat leukaemia and hepatitis. Dried leaves are used to make ointment for treating chest congestions while the bark is used in lotions for managing ulcers.

But it is its wood that has the potential to affect forest conservation in a big way in Kenya. It is now being promoted in the Sh3 billion a year carving industry. It may just be one to save hardwood indigenous trees artisans have used for generations and that are becoming extinct.

According to the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the sector employs more than 60,000 people, who support a further 300,000. The biggest market for the artefacts, mostly of wild animals, is export and tourism.

Studies show the carving industry’s demand for indigenous trees far outstrips supply. As many as 100,000 trees are cut down annually to feed its insatiable appetite.

In Kenya, the small town of Wamunyu in Machakos is the epicentre of wood carving. But there are also centres in Nairobi, Mombasa and Malindi.

One study on this sector by Dr Jane Mutinda of the School of Environmental Studies at Kenyatta University, Assessment of the Impact of the Woodcarving Industry on the Environment: A Study of Wamunyu Location, Mwala District, Kenya, had disturbing findings.


It found that the favourite woods for carving are Dalbergia melanoxylon (mpingo in Kiswahili or ebony), Brachylaena hullensis (muhugu or mahogany), Terminalia brownii (muuku in Kamba), Afzelia quanzenis, Jacaranda, Olea Africana (olive) and Combretum schumannii (rosewood or Mwaa wa usi in Kamba).

With the exception of Jacaranda, all the other trees are being cut into extinction. Indeed, mpingo, muhugu and muuku are already extinct in Wamunyu.

The estimated 200-300 tonnes per week that artisans use are now trucked in from forests such as Karura and Ngong and from as far away as Nyeri, Narok and Meru.

The Mombasa and Malindi centres use 20,800 muhugu trees each year, felled from some of the last remaining natural forests on the Coast.

A CIFOR report, Planning for woodcarving in the 21st century, notes that at the rate these trees are being harvested in the Arabuko Sokoke forest, they will be extinct in less than three decades.

Apart from threats to livelihoods for those who depend on the sector, other negative impacts include loss of homes for some of Kenya’s most endangered birds, mammals and reptiles.

The jacaranda offers hope. Although it is also diminishing, the reason its use is more sustainable is that it is easy to propagate and is fast-growing, maturing in 20 years.

The indigenous trees are difficult to propagate and take much longer to mature. Some of those being cut down are as old as 100 years.

Dr Mutinda’s study showed that it is one of the most widely cultivated species in Wamunyu.

For a meaningful shift to environmentally sustainable carving, Dr Mutinda says it is essential to create awareness and to educate the carvers and consumers of carved wood products.

So if you want a share of the multibillion-shilling carving industry, jacaranda is the tree to plant.

According to Kefri’s Seed Handbook, jacaranda is easily propagated through seedlings and cuttings. A kilo of seeds costs Sh4,000. No pre-sowing treatment is required and germination takes two to three weeks.

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