Formally speaking, the wood commonly known as Leopardwood is harvested from the Roupala montana tree. Some sources list R. brasiliensis as an acceptable synonym and such situations are not uncommon in taxonomy as different scientists, especially in the taxonomic heydays of the 18th and 19th centuries may have, unknowingly due to difficulty in long distance communications, have independently described and named the same species at different times with different names.
R. montana is native to a large swath of New World forest, ranging from Mexico in the north, through Central America, out to the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, as well as across South America to southern Bolivia, Argentina, Paraguay and southern Brazil.
While that all seems simple and straightforward enough, as is so often the case with tropical hardwoods that acquire commercial common names based on visible features, there is plenty of room for confusion when considering any one piece of wood marketed as “Leopardwood.”
Common look-alikes include members of the Panopsis spp., particularly P. rubescens and P. sessilifolia. To aid in the confusion both of these species overlap with R. montana through large areas of range, although Panopsis spp. is restricted to South America only. Ideally, wood from Panopsis spp. trees will be labeled as “Lacewood” or sometimes more specifically “Brazilian Lacewood,” but sometimes it can be sold as Leopardwood.
Short of microscopic analysis or DNA sequencing, one easy way to distinguish between Roupala spp. and Panopsis spp. is density and hardness. Roupala spp. is about 3 times harder than Panopsis spp. and is likewise about twice as dense. A piece of true Leopardwood from the Roupala spp. will feel similar to a White Oak (Quercus alba) while the Panopsis spp. sourced wood will be considerably lighter for the same volume of material.
That isn’t the end of it however because there are two Australian woods, Cardwellia sublimis (Northern Silky Oak or Australian Lacewood) and Grevillea robusta (Southern Silky Oak) that were the original “Lacewood” sources and thus could be confused with true “Leopardwood” of Roupala spp. origin. Once these Australian species became limited in supply (nowadays, G. robusta is grown on plantations in southern Africa) the lumber wholesalers moved on to the Brazilian varieties. These two Australian look-alikes sometimes appear on the market, although not as commonly as the Brazilian examples, and they might be marketed as Leopardwood, although usually they are sold as Silky Oak or as Australian Lacewood. In a manner similar to Panopsis spp. however, they are considerable softer and less dense than true Roupala spp..
And just when you thought it couldn’t get any more complicated, quartersawn Platanus occidentalis (American Sycamore) is sometimes marketed as “American Lacewood” and could conceivable be confused with true Roupala spp. Leopardwood. But again, P. occidentalis is considerably lighter and less dense, similar in fact to the other so-called Lacewoods. Distinguishing between those four contenders, however, is a topic for another day!
Now, finally, and I swear I won’t introduce any other potential look-alikes, it is remotely possible that a highly figured and perfectly quartersawn piece of Querqus alba or Q. rubra (White and Red Oak, respectively) MIGHT have adequate ray patterning to be considered a “Lacewood” or a “Leopardwood” but this shouldn’t be a common situation. And that’s a good thing because the density and hardness characteristics of those two species are much more similar to the true Roupala spp. Leopardwood that we are intending to discuss once we stop wending our merry way through possible sources of confusion…
For the sake of simplicity and common understanding, I will refer to Roupala montana from this point forward as Leopardwood.
Without question, the most defining characteristic of Leopardwood, the characteristic that gives it its common name, is the presence of highly pronounced medullary ray flecks, especially on quartersawn lumber.