Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A case for the mountain mahogany

Curl-leaf mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) in Sierra Nevada, California.
WikiMedia Commons
Curl-leaf mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) in Sierra Nevada, California.

I'm the third of five kids, so I've always been the one in the middle.

Maybe that's why I feel an affinity with the mountain mahogany tree. It's of medium height and longevity, and you never encounter it on mountaintops nor in valley lowlands. But being in the middle doesn’t mean it's boring.

Typically found in the western United States and northern Mexico, mountain mahogany isn’t related to the tropical mahogany tree. Its name comes from the crimson color extracted from its bark — called mahogany red — which was made an official Crayola color in 1949. Native Americans use its bark and root extracts to give distinctive colors to their baskets and leather goods.

Mountain mahogany is an "in betweener" when it comes to foliage. Officially, it’s a broadleaf evergreen. Broadleaf because it has flat leaves rather than needles, and evergreen because it keeps its leaves all year, like a pine or fir. Botanists place the mountain mahogany in the rose family, a close cousin to apples and pears.

In the late spring, the tree produces tiny, intricate and beautiful flowers. As the flowers fade, the female reproductive structures elongate and twist, forming fuzzy tails that help the wind carry its seeds to another mountainside home. These delightful feathery plumes inspired its scientific name, Cercocarpus, Greek for tailed fruit.

And while they pepper the natural world, mountain mahogany are also great trees for urban landscapes, as they are resistant to disease and insects, and tolerance to drought.

So, the next time you see the slightly twisted and gnarled form of a mountain mahogany, remember that being in the middle of the pack doesn’t mean average; it just means we have to look a little harder to find what makes it special. Kind of like we middle children.

Dr. Nalini Nadkarni is an emeritus professor of both The Evergreen State College and the University of Utah, one of the world’s leading ecologists and a popular science communicator. Dr. Nadkarni’s research and public engagement work is supported by the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. @nalininadkarni
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.