Exotic! What's not to love? We have exotic cars and exotic fruits. Anything with the word exotic feels sexy, seductive. So, exotic hardwood floors must be a cut above all others. Right? The first challenge, though, is defining what is meant by exotic when it comes to hardwood flooring. Brazilian pecan, with its wildly contrasting colors, or Australian cypress, with its knots, whorls, and recesses, both fit into the category most of us would call exotic, but the unusual appearance is at best a casual definition, and to properly understand exotic hardwood flooring, we need a more formal definition.
Exotic Hardwoods Defined
The larger definition of the term exotic—"coming from a foreign country"—isn't very useful when it comes to hardwoods, so most flooring manufacturers and retailers their exotic hardwoods into a group that meets following criteria:
- Mostly hard: Aren't all hardwoods physically hard? Not necessarily. purpleheart and Australian cypress, which of which fly the hardwood flag, fall mid-range on the Janka hardness scale, far below the hardness of products like teak, mahogany, ipe, and jatoba. However, most exotics tend to be quite hard as measured by the Janka scale.
- Expensive: Exotic hardwood flooring will almost always cost more than similar domestic hardwoods.
- Wide, rich grain: Grains on exotic hardwoods are often wide and pronounced.
- Vibrant colors: Exotic hardwoods exhibit vibrant, unusual colors—from reds to classic browns and even purples.
- Contrasting colors: Some exotics, like Brazilian pecan and tigerwood, show night-and-day contrasts between colors, from deep black to light tan, all in the same board.
Hardwoods, in general, grow far slower than softwoods, and hence the widespread harvest of these woods can lead to heavy deforestation of vulnerable landscapes in tropical regions. While fast-growing softwoods can be grown almost as an agricultural crop, hardwoods take many years to mature, and unless carefully controlled, much of the harvesting occurs in original-growth forests.
A variety of organizations exist to monitor logging practices and verify that they are being done in sustainable ways. One of the strictest such certification programs is that of the FSC (Forest Sustainability Council). Generally speaking, wood supplies that carry the FSC certification can be assumed to be harvested in a sustainable way. However, strict environmental protection organizations such as Rainforest Relief take a more conservative approach, insisting that only lumber from second-growth, managed forests can be said to be truly sustainable. In their view, simple certification from FSC is not enough, unless that certification also specifies that the lumber comes from managed second-growth forests.
This is a subject of hot debate, as some sources argue that most clear-cutting of tropical forests is done for the purposes of creating grazing land for cattle, not for the timber industry. In their view, creating a market for forest timber actually helps rain forest species, creating an economic reason to protect and plant hardwoods.
The best advice for concerned consumers is to make sure you buy FSC-certified woods. Although not perfect, the Forest Stewardship Council does an admirable job of monitoring the logging and processing of hardwoods to ensure that they are done in a reasonably sustainable manner.
The six exotic hardwood species discussed here were all selected because they do not fall into the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) listings for appendix I (most endangered), or appendix II (controlled trade necessary). But it is still important to make sure you are buying from sources that practice sustainable harvest techniques
Brazilian Cherry: An Old Favorite
Otherwise known as Jatoba, this fiery red hardwood hails not just from Brazil, but also from Peru and Mexico. Even though jatoba is not as popular as it once was, the good news for you is that the once sky-high prices have subsided to more reasonable levels.
- Pros: At 2350 on the Janka scale, jatoba is extremely hard. It can take sanding and refinishing many times over the course of its life.
- Cons: Brazilian cherry is no longer all that trendy. Even your parents may say, "Wasn't this floor popular in the last century?" And this is a hardwood that shows water stains more readily than many hardwoods.
The environmental question: Brazilian cherry quickly became a very popular wood that fueled a considerable amount of deforestation in South America. Make sure to look for FCS (Forest Stewardship Council) certification when buying this flooring product.
Tigerwood: Showy and Dramatic
The perfectly-named tigerwood announces itself with its wildly contrasting wide grains. Tigers, zebras, any animal with stripes come to mind with this truly exotic-looking flooring.
- Pros: Tigerwood is all about the drama that this flooring brings to a room. It also has very good resistance to moisture.
- Cons: Sunlight may fade those darker stripes, evening out the contrasts that first attracted you to this type of wood.
The environmental question: Harvesting practices vary widely on this unique wood that is native to South America and the African Congo. Organizations such as Rainforest Relief list tigerwood as one of the species to be on alert for. Although it takes some research, it is best to choose the flooring that is not only FCS-certified but also verified to come from managed second-growth forests rather than old-growth sources.
Kempas: Quietly Doing Its Job
Kempas is a reddish-pinkish brown wood from Indonesia and Malaysia that attractively darkens when stained. Kempas creates no drama in your home; it just provides a good, solid hardwood floor that lets other parts of the room shine.
- Pros: This is a durable wood that is reasonably priced for an exotic since it is rarely used for purposes other than flooring.
- Cons: Kempas will progressively darken with exposure to sunlight.
The environmental question: Kempas wood comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, and there are concerns about large quantities of this wood being imported illegally. This is not an endangered species, but responsible consumers are advised to check into where their wood is sourced and how it is harvested.
Sapele Mahogany: When a Straight Grain Is Too Boring
Rated a mid-range 1,410 on the Janka scale, sapele is a tight, wavy-grained hardwood from tropical Africa.
- Pros: This is ideal when you want flooring with a lush, wavy pattern that looks rich and very up-scale.
- Cons: Sapele is reported to be very photo-sensitive. So, areas that are carpeted, have sofas on them, or are otherwise covered may retain an outline. Sapele is also somewhat softer than other tropical hardwoods, though more durable than other forms of mahogany.
The environmental question: Sapele mahogany is a widely-sold wood from tropical Africa, and while the species is not considered endangered, it is listed as a species "of concern" by organizations such as the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). It is, however, a good alternative to other forms of mahogany that are more seriously threatened, provided you can verify that it is FSC-certified.
Australian Cypress: Rustic With a Touch of Class
Australian Cypress is a very rustic-looking wood with whorls and pronounced grain.
- Pros: You want to give your home a cottage or cabin feeling.
- Cons: As far as hardwoods go, Australian Cypress is fairly soft. Not the best wood flooring for a house with dogs.
The environmental question: Environmental groups call Australian cypress a species "of least concern," and consumers can generally use it without guilt. Australia is extremely diligent about protecting its natural resources; more than 90 percent of Australian cypress is harvested from second-growth forests. You can generally use Australian cypress without fear of environmental issues.
Ipe (Brazilian Walnut): When Hardness Matters
Known as ipe or ironwood, Brazilian Walnut is one of the toughest hardwood floors available.
- Pros: Ipe is so strong and hard that it's often used for exterior decking.
- Cons: Ipe is so difficult to fabricate that many floor installers may balk at taking on this wood.
The environmental question: Harvested from Central and South America, Ipe was once regarded as one of the better options for exotic hardwood, but more recently it has come into question as heavy demand has reduced the availability of FSC-certified supplies. Environmentally conscious consumers should verify that their wood is sustainably harvested as indicated from certification by the FSC.