Why are all the colorful woods from the tropics?

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Forum topic by Purrmaster posted 12-11-2014 12:57 PM 1694 views 0 times favorited 27 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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915 posts in 2087 days

12-11-2014 12:57 PM

This is a question that has been eating at me for a year.

When I look through the Wood Database and my local lumber store I notice that the really colorful woods (e.g. bloodwood, purpleheart) all come from trees native to hot, southern regions. Principally, it seems, South America and Africa.

To my knowledge, wood native to North America is usually some variation on brown or white.

But there are many “exotic” woods that are potently red, yellow, orange, purple, and jet black.

Assuming my premise is correct, why is this? Is there something about hotter, tropical regions that causes trees to give up wood with interesting colors? Is it just coincidence?

I have researched this and haven’t found an answer. My initial idea was that heat=colorful wood but I think that’s way too simplistic and couldn’t find any evidence to support it.


27 replies so far

View Tennessee's profile


2870 posts in 2508 days

#1 posted 12-11-2014 03:19 PM

This is just a guess, but most wood color is somewhat created by the minerals the tree sucks up in the water it needs to live.

There could also be something to be said for a strange wood color ( and possibly accompanying smell), being a defensive device against wood boring insects, of which there are many in the tropics. So evolution over time would come into play.

That’s it – I’m out of ideas!

-- Tsunami Guitars and Custom Woodworking, Cleveland, TN

View Jerry's profile


2632 posts in 1642 days

#2 posted 12-11-2014 03:21 PM

What do you call a dear with no eyes? No eye dear… What do you call a dear with no eyes and no legs? Still no eye dear… I’ve no idea :-)

-- There are good ships and there are wood ships, the ships that sail the sea, but the best ships are friendships and may they always be.

View JayT's profile


5619 posts in 2205 days

#3 posted 12-11-2014 04:20 PM

There are quite a few colorful woods from North American trees. Osage Orange and Mulberry have yellow heartwood, redwood and cedar have gorgeous red/orange tones, poplar and cottonwood can be very green (I think that’s related to the minerals in the soil that Tennessee mentioned). I have some honey locust that has a lot of pink coloring mixed with the tan. I know there are a bunch of others I am missing or not familiar with.

I think the perception comes from a couple factors. Most species of tropical wood are brown, we just don’t import as many of those. After all, we have plenty of native lumber that is brown tones, so the main species of interest are the ones that look dramatically different than what we have locally that is cheaper and easier to find. The other factor I can think of is that tropical trees tend to grow larger than most North American hardwood species, making them more viable for lumber. For instance, Osage Orange is beautiful wood, but the trees are generally smaller and very regional, so not a reliable source for yellow colored wood.

The more interesting thing to me is that I don’t know of any colorful North American woods that will not eventually fade to some shade of brown without protection from exposure to UV, while there are quite a few tropical species that will maintain their intense colors such as yellowheart and bloodwood. Others, such as purpleheart, fade to brown just like native woods.

-- In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock. Thomas Jefferson

View LiveEdge's profile


582 posts in 1614 days

#4 posted 12-11-2014 04:48 PM

I would speculate that the tropics have more diversity of species. If you have 5,000 types of trees (just throwing out a number) instead of 500 you are bound to have some that are more unusual. We have discovered the unusual species and used them for their colors.

View Tim's profile


3802 posts in 1955 days

#5 posted 12-12-2014 02:10 AM

I think it’s probably mostly what live edge said, but just guessing. What JayT said makes sense too though.

I’ve heard of a theory of why tropical plants and animals tend to be more brightly colored but I doubt it would relate to the color inside trees. I’m not even sure it was a well supported theory.

View EPJartisan's profile


1118 posts in 3119 days

#6 posted 12-12-2014 02:29 AM

Hi Purrmaster. Be careful, if this is something you really are interested in…. it is a rabbit hole if you use the right resources and searching skills, but over all that’s a great question…

Trees from the warmer climates have a lot more stuff to grow in and absorb… chemicals of all sorts are in tropical trees because they need to be very competitive to survive other plants and far far more animals, insects, and microscopic plants and animals than the colder climates. Each tree develops something to be competitive based on where they grow best. Sometimes this is in colored clays and ketone rich soils… which can be different every few miles depending on the foliage, changes during rainy seasons and flooding river banks… not to mention the constant cycle of life and death (without a sleeping season we have up here in the cold) allows for one species to become dominant and specialize their traits and then change the soils for future generations, like Bloodwood does. The oils and hard saps in many tropical trees also help give color due to prismatic crystalline structures in the tylosis, phenols, and other metallic and mineral absorption and occlusions. Which most trees in the northerns climates also have to some amount, but are not as specialized because there is less to grow in and compete with …. and thus get to focus most of their time on propagating: shooting out saplings and seeding over long distances until they can form stable dominate forests out of grasslands through successional stages. A luxury tropical trees don’t get. Think of it as similar to fish.. the more variety of fish there are in one small area the more colorful they become… where most fish here in Illinois are brown and grey with some small splash of color. There is more of each species of fish, making them easier to catch and eat, but not very pretty to collect in a fish tank.

Now I am no expert and I may have some things wrong, but I am truly interested in understanding how trees grow and why.. and how that relates to my woodworking. I highly recommend my favorite book: ””The Tree by Colin Tudge ... and researching the botanical tree names not the common nor the wood name (which can be very wrong and misleading). Hope I helped some. :)

-- " 'Truth' is like a beautiful flower, unique to each plant and to the season it blossoms ... 'Fact' is the root and leaf, allowing the plant grow and bloom again."

View bondogaposis's profile


4718 posts in 2345 days

#7 posted 12-12-2014 03:18 AM

It has to do natural selection. Woods in the tropics are constantly under attack from all manner of insects, 24/7, year round. Trees have adapted and evolved by producing resins and oils that deter insects. Those resins and oils give wood it’s color and is also why some people develop allergies to tropical woods.

-- Bondo Gaposis

View Picklehead's profile


1041 posts in 1923 days

#8 posted 12-12-2014 06:23 AM

Closer to the equator = more sunlight. Sunlight is made up of colors. More sunlight = more colors. It’s really quite obvious when you stop to think about it.

-- You've got to be smarter than the tree.

View Purrmaster's profile


915 posts in 2087 days

#9 posted 12-12-2014 01:20 PM

An excellent set of responses. Thank you!

I thought I had read somewhere that some trees do indeed take up minerals from the soil. If the minerals are the source of the color I wonder if we could “colorize” northern trees by planting them in certain soils or injecting minerals. Probably not. Do we know what minerals colorful woods like yellow heart soak up?

Your point about the diversity of species in the tropics is a good one. If you’ve got a zillion tree species you have more chance of coming across a tree or two with strange color. But still, we have many species of trees in the north but I don’t see anything that looks like bloodwood.

I looked up osage orange. Isn’t it from the more southern (hotter) part of the US?

I know trees put out saps and resins as protectives. Evolution selecting for that ability makes sense. But why red and purple and yellow? Is not pine sap either clear or light orange? And how often would a tree be showing it’s colorful wood to the world? Especially if the color is in the inner heartwood. I’d think you’d have to bore in pretty deep to see that.

I don’t know what the color spectrum of various tree eating critters are but I thought there were not many animals that could see the range of colors that humans can. I admit, once again, my premise could be faulty.

I’ll look for that book at the library. Thank you. I like rabbit holes.

As for color fading… I think the color in woods like purpleeart comes from a natural dye that the tree produces. Dyes (both natural and artificial) fade when exposed to sunlight. I think the UV light breaks down the chemical composition of the dyes.

View LiveEdge's profile


582 posts in 1614 days

#10 posted 12-12-2014 05:21 PM

I’ll be the devil’s advocate on a few of the theories, just to poke holes (although they may still have validity).

If the color comes from the soil, why aren’t our trees different in Georgia? Have you seen how red the soil can be in Georgia? (or other places)

If the color comes from the soil, why don’t we see a variety of species growing in the same area have the same coloration?

If the color comes from insect defense why do we often see a difference between heartwood and sapwood? It would seem the defense would be most helpful in the sapwood, but many of the colorful trees are only colorful in the heartwood (purpleheart comes to mind).

I’m guessing the answer, actually, is more than one answer. Each tree species has color for different reasons.

View EPJartisan's profile


1118 posts in 3119 days

#11 posted 12-12-2014 05:53 PM

Well for Bloodwood ~ The trees grow the best in higher dry soils away from flood areas. They are most fond of soils that contain Carbon, Magnesium and Iron (Ferric Oxide)... when added to Aluminum Oxide, Manganese, and a strong acidy soil… the clay essentially turns red. Since Bloodwood is not a water dwelling tree, it does not produce oils or mucilage cells, instead to retain moisture it has tanniniferous (latex) cells, which easily takes on the red color of the soil… as does the budding leaves and fruit. Since the trees prefer to form dense groves in stable ground, most saplings grow from the decay of older trees and recycle the red over and over… farmed woods have been known to have a less pure red and more stripes of reddish tan.

Bloodwood has chalcone derivatives and a prenylcoumarin that can affect men’s androgen health.

As for Yellowheart ~ it prefers to grow in red-yellow Podzolic soil… rich in Aluminum, Carbon, Iron, Nitrogen and Phosphorus, and Diphosphorus Hexoxide… and absorbs the Kaolinite clay mineral (composition Al2Si2O5(OH)4)... it is a layered silicate mineral produced by the chemical weathering of aluminium silicate minerals like feldspar. It is colored pink-orange-red by iron oxide, but Lighter concentrations yield white, yellow or light orange colors. The Iron is also why it tends to darken after a time, so the richer the yellow, the more it will darken.

YellowHeart as alkaloid that can affect a woman’s reproductive health.

I know nothing about Purpleheart… Yet!!

-- " 'Truth' is like a beautiful flower, unique to each plant and to the season it blossoms ... 'Fact' is the root and leaf, allowing the plant grow and bloom again."

View Hammerthumb's profile


2844 posts in 1969 days

#12 posted 12-12-2014 06:16 PM

EPJ, you always impress me with you tree knowledge. Thanks for the mini seminar!

-- Paul, Las Vegas

View Purrmaster's profile


915 posts in 2087 days

#13 posted 12-13-2014 04:45 AM

Let me see if I have this right. The trees that are colorful suck up minerals in the soil. But only certain trees will grow in soil with those minerals. Presumably that’s an adaptation so they can utilize areas other trees cannot tolerate.

So the trees that prefer or can tolerate soils with high loads of certain minerals happen to be the ones that are colorful? Other trees are not because they don’t grow in those soils?

The mineral theory is actually the most compelling one I’ve heard so far. But that still leaves the question… why do these trees develop only in warmer areas? What is it about northern cold that doesn’t produce mineral sucking trees? Once again, my premise could be wrong. As pointed out above: aromatic cedar’s purple color kind of blows my a hole in my premise.

And I’m still curious about Live Edge’s point about only the heartwood being brightly colored? Wouldn’t it be uncommon for any critter to be able to bore so far into a tree as to hit the heartwood?

View Neptuno's profile


32 posts in 1312 days

#14 posted 12-13-2014 05:13 PM

One thing I know. Northern hemisphere species are usually light coloured, hence you look for tropical species that are usually dark. Southern species are usually dark, so we love and envy your light woods.


-- We must all cross the line.

View timbertailor's profile


1594 posts in 1418 days

#15 posted 12-13-2014 06:21 PM

I would speculate that the tropics have more diversity of species. If you have 5,000 types of trees (just throwing out a number) instead of 500 you are bound to have some that are more unusual. We have discovered the unusual species and used them for their colors.

- LiveEdge


-- Brad, Texas,

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