Sourwood trees provide an excellent habitat for pollinators, and their lumber makes great tool handles, but is sourwood good firewood? This guide looks at how the seasoned wood burns so that you know if it’s worth the trouble to split.

Is sourwood good for firewood?

Sourwood is a good choice for firewood as it burns clean and produces excellent coals. Although its heat output is less than other popular hardwoods like oak, it is a better option than most softwoods.

  • Produces excellent coals and burns clean.
  • Less heat efficiency than most common hardwoods.
  • Challenging to split by hand.
  • Doesn’t usually provide much wood.
An infographic showing sourwood firewood data
Dashboard stats for sourwood firewood.

Sourwood firewood burn qualities

1. Heat output

Sourwood gives out 20.5 million BTUs per cord, which is better than most softwoods. However, it’s low compared to hardwoods commonly used in fireplaces like oak and hickory.

A lower BTU doesn’t mean you shouldn’t burn it. But if your town is freezing cold in winter, try combining sourwood with a hotter-burning wood. You could also use it in the shoulder seasons or for kindling.

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

Wood varietyHeat per Cord (Million BTUs)
Black locust30.7
Rock elm32.9

2. Smoke

Wood that gives off too much smoke will result in a smoked-out house and sore eyes. Most well-dried sourwood burns clean, giving off minimal smoke. Whether you’re sitting in the comfort of your own home or huddled around a campfire, smoke won’t be an issue.

Always season firewood adequately before throwing it in the fire. Green wood from the sourwood tree contains water content that will create a lot of smoke. Unseasoned wood is also highly inefficient; the fire uses its energy to evaporate water instead of giving off heat.

3. Ease of splitting

Splitting sourwood is typically hard work, and logs often have a twisted, interlocking grain. It is exceptionally dense, although you may get lucky with smaller rounds. Our experience with sourwood is backed up by the NC State Extension, which advises the wood is “heavy, hard, and close-grained.” Source.

A powerful maul or splitting axe is recommended for working with a large pile of rounds. If you can access a hydraulic splitter, your work will be made much easier.

4. Sparks

While some varieties of wood give off a lot of sparks as they burn, sourwood is a much better option. Inside a wood stove or crackling in an open fireplace, it’s unlike you’ll get a stray ember burning the carpet (or your skin).

If you’re in the outdoors, you can never be too careful. Avoid leaving a burning fire unattended, as it can be unpredictable.

5. Aroma

Sourwood gives off a mild, pleasant fragrance as it burns. Most people will enjoy its smell, although some describe it as neutral.

Indigenous Indians used sticks made from sourwood to roast meat. The wood imparted good flavor, so meat smokers, roasters, and barbecue enthusiasts should enjoy using sourwood for cooking.

6. Coaling

The quality of firewood coals impacts how long the fire keeps giving off heat. Sourwood is a dense variety of hardwood that has excellent coaling properties. If you have good-sized logs, frequently adding more wood to the fire shouldn’t be needed. 

7. Creosote build-up

Creosote is a highly flammable black substance deposited inside chimneys as the fire burns. Some firewood is worse than others, meaning you’ll need to clean the flu more often.

Like most hardwoods, sourwood doesn’t leave much creosote as it burns. However, we suggest getting the chimney serviced each year to reduce the chance of an unwanted fire.

How long does it take to season sourwood?

Sourwood is relatively quick to season, so allow 12 months before burning. If you leave it for 18 months, you’ll get better firewood with less smoke.

Tips for seasoning sourwood

To season sourwood quicker, follow these simple tips:

  • Split the wood first: splitting logs will increase the surface area exposed to sunlight and wind.
  • Space out the rows: build stacks with small gaps between each to facilitate airflow.
  • Cover the wood: use a wood shed or suitable cover to protect the stacks from the elements.
  • Stack in the right place: avoid shady, damp spots, and face the stack towards the wind.
  • Raise the wood: lay the wood on planks or pallets to keep the firewood away from disease, insects, and moisture in the soil.
An illustration of a sourwood tree on white background
A mature sourwood tree.

Commonly asked questions

When is the best time to fell a sourwood for firewood?

Try to fell sourwood trees and split the firewood between winter and early spring. During this cold part of the year, there is lower sap and moisture content, resulting in wood that seasons quicker.

How can I identify sourwood firewood?

Sourwood has brownish-red heartwood with layers of thick sapwood that’s a pale shade. 

How can I identify a sourwood tree?

Mature sourwoods have thick, reddish-gray bark with deep furrows and broad ridges. The tree often twists towards the light, resulting in a crooked trunk.

Sourwood glossy green leaves are oblong with pointed tips and a simple, alternate pattern. In fall, they turn yellow, orange, then purple. The small creamy white flowers are bell-shaped and form clusters.

An illustration of sourwood leaves and flowers isolated on white background
The flowers are creamy white and bell-shaped.

7 fast facts about sourwood

  1. The scientific name for the sourwood tree is Oxydendrum arboreum from the family Ericaceae.
  2. Sourwood is also known as sorrel, elk tree, sorrel gum, titi tree, sour gum, and lily-of-the-valley tree.
  3. The name sourwood derives from the leaves, which have a sour taste.
  4. Sourwood honey is extremely popular in some parts of North America. It is revered for its enticing amber color, smooth texture, and buttery caramel flavor. Source: Bee Professor.
  5. The small branches are used to make pipe stems.
  6. Only one sourwood species exists; they are deciduous and rarely live past 80 years.
  7. Native Americans used the bark and leaves for various medicinal uses. The wood made excellent cooking tools and sled runners.

Summing up

Sourwood makes decent firewood that is worth the effort to split, even though it’s an arduous task. The wood provides great coals and burns clean. 

While its BTU rating is 20.5 is moderate at best, you can use it for kindling or combined with other hardwoods.

Sourwoods often don’t grow very big, so once the wood dries, there may not be much left! If you don’t have big pieces of wood, consider using them as a filler, mixed with larger splits.

Similar Posts