When it comes to firewood, you’d probably think of oak, maple, pine, and other popular trees. Cottonwood, however, sparks a debate between those who swear by it and those who believe it’s unsuitable for burning.
Some claims about cottonwood, especially those about its unpleasant smell, are avoidable if the firewood has been properly seasoned. As long as you’re not using cottonwood to warm cold nights, it should satisfy most of your needs.
So let’s try and answer the question; is cottonwood good firewood?
To do this, we will explore the following:
- What cottonwood is
- Cottonwood’s burn qualities
- How cottonwood compares to other types of firewood
- The pros and cons of using cottonwood
- Whether cottonwood is a good option or not.
Let’s get into it!
Cottonwood Firewood Facts
BTU: 16 million BTU/cord
Weight: 4640lbs/cord (green)
Seasoning Time: 12 months
Resin / Sap Content: Low
Splitting Difficulty: Easy
Overall Quality: Fair
What Is Cottonwood?
A tree native to North America, cottonwood is best known for its seeds that resemble cotton. This fast-growing tree adds at least six feet to its height each year, and over time, it can reach towering heights of over 100 feet!
When it comes to their habitat, cottonwood trees favor sunny areas that also receive plenty of moisture. As a result, cottonwood is often found near rivers and swamps.
This tree also has a pretty short lifespan, although some can live for as long as 100 years. Since cottonwood is a deciduous tree, its leaves turn golden yellow during autumn.
Aside from its potential use as firewood, cottonwood has also been used to build canoes, brew tea, feed animals, and combat vitamin C deficiency.
Common Types and Species of Cottonwood Trees Used for Firewood
There are a few different types and species of cottonwood, but some of them are especially popular as firewood.
Eastern Cottonwood (Populus deltoides)
This species is commonly found in the eastern and central regions of North America. Eastern cottonwood is known for its fast growth rate and produces a lot of firewood. The wood of this tree is relatively soft and burns easily, making it an excellent choice for firewood.
Fremont Cottonwood (Populus fremontii)
This species is native to western North America, specifically to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. Fremont cottonwood is known for its large size and straight trunk. The wood of this tree is denser than Eastern cottonwood, which means it produces more heat when burned.
Black Cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa)
This species is found in western North America, from Alaska to California. Black cottonwood is known for its tall stature and its ability to grow in wet soils. The wood of this tree is relatively soft, but it still produces a good amount of heat when burned.
The Burn Qualities of Cottonwood Firewood
Cottonwood Burn Smell
When used as firewood, cottonwood is known to smell like cat urine.
This unfortunate smell puts a lot of people off, but you should know that the smell is far more likely to happen if you’re burning greenwood.
If properly seasoned, cottonwood produces a slight scent that resembles sage. However, for the most part, burning cottonwood doesn’t smell of anything at all. Avoid burning the bark of cottonwood as this will contribute to any unwanted smells.
In any case, make sure to burn properly seasoned cottonwood to avoid the foul odors that many people have encountered.
Cottonwood Resin and Sap Content
There’s a reason why you won’t likely see cottonwood in someone’s yard—these trees can produce a lot of resin and sap that cling to unsuspecting people, especially from their leaf buds.
In contrast, the wood collected from the tree’s trunk shouldn’t be as messy because the sap is mostly concentrated in its branches.
Cottonwood Cut and Split Difficulty
When green and freshly cut, cottonwood is notoriously difficult to cut and split. The reason for this is the fact that cottonwood holds a lot of moisture, making it quite resistant to your axe.
Because of this quality, it makes sense to first wait for the cottonwood to dry up before you try cutting and splitting it. Once some of the moisture has evaporated, cottonwood becomes a lot more manageable.
Curing cottonwood for at least six months before splitting will make the entire process a lot smoother.
Cottonwood Seasoning Time
Unlike other hardwoods, cottonwood has a relatively short seasoning time.
When cottonwood is first harvested, they will contain a lot of moisture, making the splitting process troublesome.
This results in heavy rounds of wood. However, best practise is to allow the green rounds of cottonwood to season for six months before you then decide to split them.
Seasoning for six months before splitting will enable you to split them with far more ease had you not. After splitting, leave the cottonwood for another six months, which will enable them to be fully prepared to be used as firewood.
Cottonwood Burn Quality
Despite the mess that its sap can make, properly seasoned cottonwood has a surprisingly clean burn. It burns hot and fast and leaves a lot of ash behind.
Ash can be used in a variety of useful ways such as garden fertilizer, melting or preventing ice during cold winters and can even be used to clean silver.
Like other types of firewood, cottonwood doesn’t burn well when it’s still green, so ensure you’ve properly seasoned your cottonwood before using it for a campfire.
Cottonwood Heat Output and Efficiency (BTUs)
Cottonwood quickly catches fire and burns hot and bright. However, it sadly can’t maintain this level of heat.
A cord of firewood—equivalent to a volume of 128 cubic feet—generates heat which is measured in British Thermal Units (BTUs). A higher BTU rating means that firewood produces greater heat.
Cottonwood only has a BTU of around 16 million, a value that’s much lower compared to similar hardwoods. As a result, it doesn’t give off that much heat, making it inappropriate for use during winter nights.
Cottonwood Smoke Production
In general, improperly seasoned firewood will produce a lot of smoke and generate an unpleasant smell. The same holds true for cottonwood.
If properly seasoned, cottonwood doesn’t produce a lot of smoke— similar to other hardwoods.
If you’re unsure if your cottonwood is ready to be burned, use a moisture meter device which will indicate its moisture levels, allowing you to make an informed decision about whether to burn it or not.
Firewood that produces a lot of sparks when burned is a fire hazard as it can spread smoldering embers into the surrounding area.
Since cottonwood doesn’t produce a lot of sparks, it’s a suitable option for outdoor heating and even cooking.
As with any outdoor fire, keeping a close eye on it is always of high priority.
Cottonwood Fire Quality
Overall, cottonwood produces a hot flame that burns quickly thanks to its low density. However, its low BTU means it’s not the most energy-efficient firewood out there.
Its clean burn nevertheless makes it appealing as it doesn’t produce a lot of smoke or leave a lot of creosote. However, you’ll need to clean up after its ash.
What to Do With Cottonwood’s Ash
There are a number of things that you can do with cottonwood ash.
First, since wood ash naturally melts ice, you can sprinkle it over commonly-frequented areas during winter. Unlike chemical-based ice melt, wood ash doesn’t pose any toxicity and is perfectly safe.
When spring arrives, cottonwood ash can then be used as garden fertilizer. A ratio of about five gallons spread over 1,000 square feet of soil should be enough.
However, keep in mind that not all crops will appreciate wood ash because it makes the soil more alkaline. Consider first what plants you want in your garden before using wood ash as a fertilizer.
Pros and Cons of Using Cottonwood as Firewood
- Cottonwood is cheap, widely available, and grows fast, making it easily accessible and affordable
- Cottonwood burns well when properly seasoned and doesn’t produce smoke or an unpleasant smell
- Cottonwood is difficult to split while it’s still green
- Because of its low BTU, cottonwood isn’t appropriate for cold nights or when you need hotter flames
- When improperly seasoned, cottonwood can produce an off-putting smell
Cottonwood vs. Other Firewood
Compared to other hardwoods, cottonwood doesn’t burn nearly as hot or long. However, cottonwood is much cheaper compared to prized hardwoods like maple or oak, so it’s a good choice for people on a budget.
Because it grows quickly, cottonwood isn’t as difficult to source unlike some other types of firewood.
In terms of heat output, cottonwood is comparable to some types of pine, spruce, and catalpa.
The Verdict: Is Cottonwood Good Firewood?
In summary, cottonwood is a decent firewood. While it’s not the best hardwood on the market, its advantage is that it’s readily available and often cheap.
However, cottonwood must be properly seasoned before it’s burned to avoid unpleasant smells that could stink up your entire campsite! It’s also not great for cold nights, and the ash it produces can be too much to handle.
If you can live with all its cons, then cottonwood may still be a good choice for your next campfire!
Firewood Facts – Your Guide To Campfire Fuel
There are many types of firewood you could use for your campfire. All of them offer different characteristics which make for better or worse campfires – depending on what you’re looking for.
Discover, below, the key differences between some popular firewood’s to help you determine which wood would be best for your next campfire.
For a complete firewood facts guide, check out our Best Firewood Facts Chart article.