Mystery wood.

Discussion in 'Plants: Identification' started by PlantExplorer, Mar 23, 2003.

  1. PlantExplorer

    PlantExplorer Active Member 10 Years

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    This one is a bit of a stumper, one that I think Peter Wharton might have the best insight into.

    There are eight pillars in Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Garden, four in the Scholar’s pavilion and four in the main pavilion, made of what is referred to only as ‘nan’ wood (spelled phonetically here).

    At the time the garden was constructed, in the early 1980’s, the wood was already so precious and rare that a gift of eight such timbers was considered generous.

    I would very much like to find out the species of tree that is the source of this wood. It was traditionally selected for use for the posts in building because of its durability and resistance to insect damage. This suggests to me that it may be resinous and very possibly coniferous in origin. Any thoughts?
     

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  2. Joan

    Joan Active Member

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    Could this possibly be the tropical wood, neem, Azadirachta indica? I don't think it grows in China however!
     
  3. PlantExplorer

    PlantExplorer Active Member 10 Years

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    Azadirachta indica is a species native to India and now found on Mauritius and throughout many south pacific islands - and although there was healthy exploration and trade during the Ming Dynasty, I believe that ‘nan’ wood is a species native to China. I will admit that the general description of the genus Azadirachta does seem to fit fairly well, and it is possible that more northerly stands may grow in China, but it is still just speculation. I have found no other link between 'neem' and 'nan' wood.
     
  4. bruce

    bruce Member

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    I did some thinking on this mystery wood and without seeing it but noting the value and pavilion placement you mention, I had some ideas. Our west coast yellow cedar is valued in Japan as a replacement of their native species used in temple and pavilion construction. One Japanese cedar Hinoki falsecypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) has a cutivar called 'Nana' which is used as an ornamental locally. While this cultivar does not grow large, the native variety grows (grew?) 120 feet in Japan. Maybe the local name has been applied to the rare larger timber from Japan?

    Not conclusive, but worth some thought.
     
  5. PlantExplorer

    PlantExplorer Active Member 10 Years

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    Worth some thought

    Chamaecyparis is a reasonable possibility, as the wood does appear to be light in colour (the pale yellowish-tan posts are just visible in the photograph).

    Although some trade with Japan may have occurred, it is unlikely that sufficient quantities were available, or were in any way made available, to meet the massive demands of burgeoning Ming Dynasty China. I’m fairly sure that this tree species would be native to mainland China.

    So far we have two good possibilities; Chamaecyparis sp. and Azadirachta sp., but still no answers to the real origin of the mystery wood. Keep trying.
     
  6. Daniel Mosquin

    Daniel Mosquin Paragon of Plants UBC Botanical Garden Forums Administrator Forums Moderator 10 Years

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    I've done a little research, perusing the book "Rare and Precious Plants of China", but wasn't able to find any reference to that common name.

    Peter might be able to answer the question, but he left for China over a week ago and will return mid-April, so the mystery will have to wait for his input until then.
     
  7. PlantExplorer

    PlantExplorer Active Member 10 Years

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    Thanks Daniel

    I’ve checked Roy Lancaster’s books on his travels in China and Nepal, and Maggie Keswick’s ‘The Chinese Garden’, the RHS Dictionary, and just about every other book I have kicking around this place, and I have yet to find a reference to the actual species source of the wood. It's still an intriguing mystery…
     
  8. bruce

    bruce Member

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    I realised from your response to my last posting that I was approaching this mystery wrongly. The mention of trade between Japan and the Ming Dynasty leads one to consider we are dealing with a trade name and not a common species name. I found references to "nan wu" with wu being a common suffix and "nan" is the name for a group of durable woods of simular properties. The reference below equated nan-wu with cedar but this seems to be based on properties not species.

    ref#1---------------
    Chinese Hardwood Furniture
    of the Ming and Early Qing Dynasties

    Chinese Hardwood Names

    This table gives the Western name for various Chinese hardwoods, when one exists; and a translation of the Chinese name (indicated by "'s), when one does not. (Bear in mind that Chinese names for wood are more based on the appearance of the wood than the kind of tree which produced it; thus a single species may produce different kinds of wood, and a single kind of wood may come from more than one species.)

    huang-hua-li= "yellow flowering pear wood"
    zitan= purple rosewood
    hung-mu= rosewood
    nan-mu= cedar
    wu-mu= ebony
    ji-chi-mu= "chicken-wing wood"

    This was found at http://users.exis.net/~jnc/nontech/furniture.html
    --------------------end

    Following this lead, I found the following site again based on wood qualities and uses. It does however, give a species (Machilus nanmu, Hemsl.) for the 'nan-wu' group of woods.

    ref#2--------------------
    "After Rosewood, perhaps the next most prized variety for furniture of the best quality is a wood known as chi-ch'ih-mu, or "chicken wing wood"; but it has a convenient-if somewhat inaccurate-working equivalent in English since it has also been called satinwood.

    There is no general agreement as to its botanical name; although Cassia siamea is apparently correct for one variety. This is not nearly so translucent as the woods already described, and it has a distinctly rougher grain and a much grayer and browner color. It is thus a less finished material than hua-li; but it is of enormous toughness and strength and is at its best for pieces not designed for the most formal effects. Excellent in durability, it is also good working wood, and has rugged individuality. For Europeans a taste for Chinese satinwood may require a little cultivation; yet there are ranges of furniture for which it is extraordinarily well adapted.

    After these, the finest, there follows a range of distinctly lesser woods. One must rank nan-mu - which lacks a common English working equivalent - high among the secondary group.

    What is called nan-mu in China seems to be generally the Machilus nanmu, Hemsl. of the botanists. It is perhaps to be identified as a variety of cedar, although the best examples, when they take a glossy polish, are not altogether unlike walnut.

    While definitely below the woods already mentioned in quality, and above all without the wonderful translucence of hua-li, nan-mu is a useful wood domestic pieces where a lighter tonality is desired. Its color shades off into yellow-browns and is at best when used for simple or even slightly provincial design. A native of China, it is a durable, serviceable material.

    This information was found at: http://www.asianvariety.com/woodintro3.html

    ----------end

    Again, not conclusive but may be helpful in your quest to solve the mystery wood.
     
  9. PlantExplorer

    PlantExplorer Active Member 10 Years

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    Machilus nanmu

    Fantastic Bruce! I think you've nailed the right wood....so to speak.

    I have looked for some time, but have had no luck - your information was just what I needed to track it down. Thanks!

    I had heard that the tree was a broad-leafed evergreen, possibly of tropical, or subtropical origin. Based on the works of J. D. Hooker, and later E. H. Wilson, it looks like this tree is known and given the species name ‘nanmu’ in acknowledgement of its origin and wood. It seems that the current name is Persea nanmu which places it squarely in the Family Lauraceae and a relative of the Avacado.

    Persea nanmu Oliv.
    Family - LAURACEAE - Laurel Family
    Published in:
    Hooker's Icones Plantarum 14(1): 10-11, t. 1316. 1880.
    {Hooker's Icon. Pl. ; BPH 420.26}
    Type - protologue
    China: Sichuan: Yazhou Fu, woodlands, 600-1000 m, Oct. 1910, E.H. Wilson 4591 (A)

    The other synonyms I found are as follows;

    Machilus nanmu (Oliv.) Hemsl.
    Family - LAURACEAE - Laurel Family
    Published in:
    Journal of the Linnean Society, Botany 26(176): 376. 1891.
    {J. Linn. Soc., Bot. ; BPH 471.16}
    Type - protologue
    Yunnan,
    Basionym:
    Persea nanmu Oliv.
    Hooker's Icones Plantarum 14(1): 10-11, t. 1316. 1880.

    Phoebe nanmu (Oliv.) Gamble
    Family - LAURACEAE - Laurel Family
    Published in:
    Plantae Wilsonianae 2(1): 72. 1914.
    {Pl. Wilson. }
    Basionym:
    Persea nanmu Oliv.
    Hooker's Icones Plantarum 14(1): 10-11, t. 1316. 1880.
     
    Last edited: Apr 6, 2003

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