The cottonwood tree is a water-loving deciduous that can grow up to six feet in one year. They’re North America’s fastest growing tree, reaching heights of well over 100 feet.

Are you wondering if cottonwood firewood is any good? We’ve created this guide to walk you through how it compares to other popular options.

Is cottonwood a good option for the fire?

Cottonwood is moderately good firewood that is easy to split and doesn’t give off a lot of sparks as it burns. It has a relatively low heat output, making it best used in the shoulder seasons or for kindling.  

  • Produces low levels of heat compared to hickory and oak.
  • Easy to split by hand using a splitting axe or maul.
  • Gives off some smoke as it burns but few sparks.
  • Not recommended for very cold climates as a sole firewood source.
Infographic of cottonwood firewood statistics

Cottonwood firewood burn qualities

1. Heat output

Cottonwood firewood emits 15.8 million BTUs of heat per cord. That’s quite low compared with alternatives like black locust, beech, oak, and hickory. Cottonwood compares to aspen, white fir, and chestnut for heat.

Heat output is an important consideration, whether you’re relaxing at home or crouched around a campfire. You need a fire that fights off the cold weather. Cottonwood may come up short on the coldest winter nights, so we suggest using it with slower burning hardwoods like oak.

Check out the following table comparing the heat output of cottonwood to various other common types of firewood.  

Wood varietyHeat per Cord (Million BTUs)
White fir14.6
Black locust27.9
Osage orange32.9

2. Smoke

Cottonwood may give off some smoke as it burns so if you’re sensitive to smoke, then this may not be the best choice for your home. Keep in mind, that there are smokier firewood varieties like sycamore and pine.

To get the best out of your wood, it needs to be completely dried out before using it in the fire. Properly seasoned firewood will give off less smoke and will burn hotter.

If you can get a moisture meter, this device will indicate when the wood is ready to be burned.

3. Ease of splitting

The idea of slamming an axe blade into logs that are harder than granite doesn’t appeal to most. Thankfully, unseasoned cottonwood is easy to split most of the time. It has a nice, straight grain so heavy-duty mauls or hydraulic splitters aren’t needed. In saying that, using a purpose-built tool will make the job easier.

If you let cottonwood season first, splitting will be tougher. Old cottonwood trees with knots throughout are also hard to split. You could say this about virtually any species of tree though.

4. Sparks

You won’t notice a lot of popping and sparking as cottonwood burns. It is suitable for cooking, outdoor campfires, wood stoves, and open indoor fireplaces.

Like any firewood, keep a watchful eye on the fire if you’re out in the forest. Forest fires are not something you want to be responsible for.

5. Aroma

Cottonwood gives off a slight fragrance that will give your house a homely, welcoming feel. It is also useful for cooking, adding a subtle flavor to food cooked in meat smokers or barbecues. Those who like a bit of extra smoky flavor in their food may want to also toss in some pecan or hickory. 

6. Coaling

The coals produced by burning firewood impact how long the wood burns and the heat it gives off. Cottonwood has good coaling properties, so the wood will give off heat most of the night. Re-starting coals the next morning is a simple chore with a little kindling.

While cottonwood is good for its coals, there are better hardwoods like oak and black locust.

7. Creosote build-up

The buildup of black tar inside the chimney comes from burning wood that’s full of sap and resin. Too much of the stuff can block the chimney so maintenance is important.  

Creosote won’t be a big problem if you burn properly seasoned cottonwood. It has very little sap and resin, so creosote residue will be low compared to softer woods like pine.

Large rounds of cottonwood next to a picket fence
Seasoned cottonwood doesn’t produce much creosote.

How long should I season cottonwood?

If you live in a warm and dry climate then 6 months will be sufficient time to season cottonwood. Allow 12 months in cooler regions that are prone to rain.

Seasoned wood means it has been dried to the point that it contains less than 20% water content. Burning cottonwood that has been seasoned is essential as it’ll burn hotter and have fewer sparks and smoke.

Tips for seasoning cottonwood

There are some useful ways to encourage firewood to season faster. Follow these tips to speed up cottonwood wood seasoning.

  • Cover the wood: use a cover such as a tarp to protect firewood from the elements but allow one side to remain exposed to the wind.
  • Raise the wood: stack the cottonwood on planks or blocks to create airflow beneath the wood.
  • Increase the surface area: splitting logs into smaller pieces to increase the surface area exposed to wind and sunshine.
  • Stack in the right location: position the face of the stack towards the wind and avoid shady areas.
  • Space out the rows: create a series of stacks with a 3-5” gap between each one to assist with air circulation.

How do I identify a cottonwood tree?

Cottonwood trees have triangle leaves that alternate on the stems. The edge of the leaves has coarse teeth that are curved.

Young cottonwood trees have smooth yellowish-green bark which becomes deeply furrowed as it matures. Black cottonwoods produce yellow catkins while Eastern cottonwoods grow reddish catkins for male trees and yellowish-green ones for females.

Cottonwoods are often as wide as they are tall with uneven foliage from branch breakage.

A black cottonwood tree on white background
Cottonwoods grow fast and tall.

Cottonwood varieties

Black cottonwood (Populus balsamifera) — commonly found west of the Rocky Mountains

Eastern cottonwood (Populus deltoides) — commonly found in southern Canada and the eastern U.S.

Fremont cottonwood (Populus fremontii) — commonly found in northwest Mexico and parts of Utah and California.

Facts about the cottonwood tree

  • The botanical name for the cottonwood tree is Populus from the family Salicaceae.
  • The tree was used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes and to make dugout canoes.
  • Only the females produce a cotton-like substance.
  • Cottonwood trees are popular for landscaping as they offer excellent shade in summer.
  • The trees thrive next to large water sources like ponds and rivers.

Summing up

Cottonwood may not make it onto any top firewood list, but it’s still well worth burning. Its heat output is 15.8 million BTUs per cord of wood, so won’t be ideal for very cold weather. But it’s great mixed with other types of firewood, used as kindling, or burnt in the shoulder seasons.

Most people find cottonwood doesn’t have any major problems. It’s easy to split and won’t give off excessive sparks or smoke.

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