Pine flooring is renowned as a warm and inviting renewable flooring choice that is found everywhere from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Washington’s Mount Vernon to today’s most modern homes. However, when choosing pine flooring there is great confusion among terms such as “Yellow Pine,” “Southern Yellow Pine,” “heart pine,” and “Old Growth Heart Pine.” While each type of pine is beautiful in its own right, it is important to know the distinctions.
Yellow Pine isn’t one species of tree, but a group of pines native to the Southeastern US. Yellow Pines include the Loblolly, Longleaf, Shortleaf, and Slash Pine. The plain sawn Yellow Pine represents the least expensive, yet most traditional flooring choices.
A tree is composed of both heartwood and sapwood. Heart pine is the heartwood of the longleaf pine tree. Because of properties particular to this species of pine, Heart Pine is extremely hard, strong, and stable, making it an excellent wood for flooring.
The only way to get Heart Pine is time. According to the USDA Forest Service book “Longleaf Pine,” it takes 200 years for a longleaf pine to become mostly heartwood and be considered antique. Because this lumber was so desirable, it was almost timbered to extinction by 1900. What remains of the once vast virgin forest are protected meaning Old Growth Heart Pine is no longer commercially available as a timber crop.
Scientists say that any wood from a tree less than 200 years old is “new heart pine.” A 75-year-old tree will average less than 30% heart. New Heart Pine is not as hard or rich in color as true Old Growth Heart Pine.
Longleaf pine trees usually only grew an inch in diameter every 30 years and lived to be 400 to 500 years old, meaning that old growth heart pine grew slowly and had time to grow dense and strong.
Fortunately, old-growth heart pine still exists as high quality timbers are reclaimed from turn-of-the century mill buildings, warehouses, and factories. Other sources of Old Growth Heart Pine are found underwater in the southern rivers used by timber operations in the 1800s to raft their logs to nearby sawmills.
While there is no uniformity in how these terms are used, a good way to determine what type of pine flooring you are looking at is to determine its source. Newly harvested pine floors are most likely to be Yellow Pine, while pine floors recycled from turn-of-the-century mills or sourced from river bottoms are most likely to be Old Growth Heart Pine.