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Building materials

Plants provide all manner of materials used in construction. These range from timbers and rattans to resins and waxes used in paints and other products. Without plants we would be hard-pressed to build ourselves shelter and homes.

The wonder of wood

With around 400 billion trees on Earth, found on every continent except for the Antarctic, it is no surprise that humans have turned to them for various uses.

Wood has been used as a building material since the Neolithic period (between 4,000 to 11,000 years ago) when humans first used trees to build shelters.

Wood has many qualities that makes it ideal for building houses and furniture: it can provide insulation, it is flexible, light but strong.

Other types of material

Aside from the wood from the well known trees such as oak (Quercus robur), teak (Tectona grandis) and mahogany (Swietenia species), there are many other building materials that are derived from plants. 

Rubber plantation, Cameroon

Plantation of Hevea brasiliensis

These include:

  • Rattans (climbing palms) - used in all kinds of products from building shelters to cane furniture, mats, fish traps, baskets and medicines.
  • Cork, taken from the outer layer of the cork oak (Quercus suber) is not only used for bottle stoppers but is popular as a flooring material.
  • The milky latex of Hevea brasiliensis, produced by the plant's specialised secretory system, is the raw material for natural rubber.

You can find out more about these - and others - by clicking on the plant images below.

Under threat

Trees can be a renewable resource if they are harvested sustainably, or planted at the same rate as they are harvested. However, timber resources are under threat in many countries and some species such as mahogany are threatened with extinction due to over-exploitation. Organisations such as CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of flora and fauna) work to try and prevent this from happening.

Kew works with CITES to educate enforcement authorities such as HM Revenue & Customs, UK Border Agency, Wildlife Inspectors and the Police about the inspection and identification of endangered material, together with advice on the holding and disposal of detained or seized goods.