Woods of the World in the Thünen Institute

The xylotheque in Hamburg

Regal mit verschieden Holzarten

Everybody knows what a library is: a room with books, which, if it contains reference works, holds a trove of information. But the shelves must not always be filled with books. In Hamburg a special “library” for wood can be found at the Thünen Institute of Wood Research. In the rows of shelves, samples of the most diverse woods from all parts of the earth can be found. This type of scientific wood collection is called a xylotheque. With more than 37,000 listed wood samples, the Hamburg xylotheque is one of the largest in the world.

These samples serve as a reference for identifying unknown woods or wood products. Almost every day the xylotheque receives requests from all areas of the wood industry: wood users and product controllers, such as for example customs and natural protections agencies (monitoring of illegally harvested woods), wood dealers (clarification of false declarations), through to private consumers who want to be sure that the meranti window they ordered is truly meranti wood. With the help of the reference woods in their xylotheque, the Thünen experts can definitively say which type of wood it is.

Many endangered tree species are protected under the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which controls the worldwide trade of endangered animal and plant species. For example the trade of Rio Palisander (cocobolo) (Dalbergia nigra) is prohibited and the import of true mahagony (Swietenia spp.), which is used for fine interiors and boat building, must be licensed.

In the meantime a computer-supported determination key has become available (CITESwoodID) which makes it possible for less practiced persons from customs agencies or natural protection agencies to identify the most important trade woods on the basis of macroscopic structural characteristics. Wood samples from the Hamburg xylotheque were an essential basis for this purpose.

Future challenges and goals of current research work are to prove the origin of woods. Some of the CITES protected woods can be grown on plantations far from their natural habitats and from there be traded legally. Until now, it has not been possible to definitively differentiate between these products. The Thünen Institute of Forest Genetics is therefore developing methods for the molecular biological identification (fingerprinting) of protected wood types.