Wood Types used by Rohan Cherry


MOSHI, TANZANIA – With the snow-capped peak of Mount Kilimanjaro providing a backdrop under simmering tropical sunshine, a group of women in Mijongweni village break into song. The song, in Swahili, praises the benefits of protecting the environment and living in harmony with nature for the survival of generations; values vital to the survival of one of the rarest hardwood trees in the world, the African blackwood.

Known to locals as mpingo, the African blackwood (dalbergia melanoxylon) is a tree that has been exploited to extinction in southern Ethiopia and Kenya and is currently only found in Tanzania and northern Mozambique. Tanzania boasts large tracts of natural forest and woodlands.

While few people would recognise the tree, many across the world have heard its melodious tunes: the tree is a prized commodity for makers of musical instruments like flutes, clarinets and oboes, so much so that it is today the most expensive hardwood tree in the world, currently fetching up to 25,000 dollars per cubic metre.


Purpleheart is a very tall, handsome canopy tree, averaging 120 to 150 feet in height in the natural rainforest, with diameters of 2 to 4 feet, and a clear, straight, cylindrical bole of 60 to 90 feet, above a moderately buttressed base. Nazareno is leguminous or nitrogen-fixing.


Purpleheart has been exploited extensively for years because of its high strength and durability as well as its unusual colour and beauty. It is increasingly rare, and is nearing extinction in parts of its original range. Purpleheart is listed as threatened in “Arboles Maderables en Peligro de Extinción en Costa Rica.”


One of the most distinctive woods in the world, Purpleheart is prized for its very unusual deep purple colour. When freshly cut, this dense hardwood is light brown. Within minutes the surface turns an astonishing bright purple. Upon prolonged exposure to sunlight, the colour gradually changes to a chocolate-purple colour. This beautiful wood is straight to wavy grained, fine and uniform textured and fairly smooth with a medium to high lustre. Purpleheart turns smoothly, is easy to glue, takes finishes well and is highly durable.


This tree is a pure African species growing in Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It dominates vast tracts of the Kalahari Desert and is often associated with other leguminous tree species. This timber is called Rhodesian, or Zambian teak because of its outstanding strengths, durability and stability.


Rhodesian teak is a much-branched tree growing to heights of 50 to 60 feet with clear boles 10 to 15 feet in height and diameters of 30 inches. On young trees, the bark is smooth but later becomes vertically fissured, cracked and brownish in color. The leaves are alternate and compound with four to five pairs of opposite leaflets. The very attractive, large flowers grow on large, strong axillary racemes that are 12 inches long. The fruit is a flattened, woody pod 2 inches wide by 5 inches long. From June to September, the pods split explosively and scatter seeds widely.


The heartwood is an attractive reddish-brown with prominent, irregular black streaks and flecks. The pale pinkish-brown sapwood is sharply demarcated from the heartwood. On exposure to light it soon changes to reddish-brown, and after some years the red component disappears, leaving a beautiful dark-brown colour. The texture is fine and even. The grain is straight or slightly interlocked. Luster is low, and the wood is without characteristic odor or taste. Like wood in the Quercus genus, Rhodesian teak will stain when moist and in contact with iron because of its tannin content. Average reported specific gravity is 0.73 (oven-dry weight/green volume), equivalent to an air-dried weight of 58.


Pink Ivory (Berchemia zeyheri), also called Red Ivory, umNini or umGoloty, is a very rare African wood used to make luxury products (for example billiard cues and knives). The Pink Ivory tree grows predominantly in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. The wood is extremely hard and has a density of 990 g/dm³. Native from Southern Africa, Zimbabwe in the North to the Eastern Cape in the South. Evergreen tree, up to 15 meters tall, with dense and round crown, it grows in open woodland and rocky hillsides and along drainpipes. It is drought resistant and can stand light frost. It is a protected tree in South Africa. Special permits are granted for harvesting. Pink Ivory is the royal tree of the Zulus because only the royal family were allowed to possess the wood and wear it as ornament. Anyone else possessing the wood (including foreigners) was said to be punished with death. (The death sentence was a legend started in order to increase the value of the wood when sold overseas).


Heartwood ranges from light pink to a dark red colour. Sapwood is yellowish. The heart is very hard and heavy with a density of 1.1 t per m3 when air-dried.


It dries slowly and doesn’t slit easily. This is probably due to its oily content.


The wood of the Wild Olive is very popular for making furniture and cabinets. It has been successfully used for making guitars (front and back). The finish of the wood is very smooth. The fruits are edible but not very tasty (they are a treat for various birds!). The commercial olive (Olea europea spp. europea) has been grafted onto this tree and is being grown with success in the Cape Province. Bark and leaf extracts are used medicinally. Since the Wild Olive is able to withstand extreme frost and drought, it is a favourite garden subject, providing a deep cool shade on hot days and protection for frost tender plants during winter. In extreme conditions the tree is unlikely to grow to its full potential and might remain a small rounded tree. The Wild Olive is probably one of the best indigenous trees for making bonsai. They can be trained in various styles; reacts well to pruning and the leaves reduce considerably in size.


The Wild Olive can be propagated from seed or hardwood cuttings. Fresh seed should be used for best results. The seeds should be planted in pure river sand (or a similar well-drained growth medium). Germination normally occurs after 2 weeks. Hardwood cuttings can be made in early spring, and after treatment with rooting hormone, it should be planted in a well drained medium. Keep the cuttings in the growing container for at least a year before planting into the open ground. Sufficient roots have developed after 1 year for the new plant to be separated from the main plant. This tree will grow in most soil types but it does best in alkaline soil. Watering the plants while young will encourage and speed up growth.

Imbuia is a beautiful Brazilian wood that is sometimes marketed under the commercial name Brazilian walnut. However, imbuia or Phoebe porosa is not a true walnut and there are some people who object to the use of the name, citing that it is misleading. Still, looking at the finished wood, one can see how a comparison to walnut could be made. Imbuia’s heartwood varies in colour from a greenish yellow to olive, to chocolate brown, often variegated with a grain that can be straight, wavy or curly. Like walnut, it has a high natural lustre.

Its texture is similar to walnut and the seasoned wood is about as dense as American black walnut and European black walnut. The tree’s botanical names also are a key to its special properties. Albert Constantine’s book, “Know Your Woods,” explains that the name, Phoebe porosa, translates roughly to Phoebe or goddess of the moon, therefore, bright and porosa or porous. Imbuia thrives in the southern area of Brazil, especially in the humid Araucaria forests in Parana and Santa Catharina. Imbuia is one of the most important commercial timbers from Brazil.

Its uses include fine furniture and cabinetry work as well as architectural projects and paneling. It is prized as a decorative veneer and exported all over the world. In Brazil it is sometimes used for flooring and joinery. And, like walnut, it is also used for gunstocks and rifle butts. Imbuia is also a popular choice for sculpture, carving and turnery and is used to make specialty items such as handles and wooden ware.

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