Throughout history, humans have burned wood for heat. At one time, the firepit inside a cave dwelling became the heating system and home heating evolved through the centuries. Advances in fireplace construction started in 220 A.D. when the Chinese fabricated the first cast-iron stove, and the search for the best firewood trees began, with the fastest growing "firewood" trees moving to the top of the list in that search. The qualities of good firewood form the basis of planting and managing trees used for firewood, and fast-growing trees are part of that equation.
Qualities of Good Firewood
If you are having trouble starting your fire and the wood it's consuming is just the wood on the matchstick, it's time to analyze what is wrong with your wood. You want it to light quickly and produce heat, but don't want the smoke and mess of poor-quality fire-burning wood. Burning efficiently and producing little smoke is the ideal.
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Density and dryness are the basic components necessary for burning wood cleanly. That means burning it without the snap, crackle and pop and dense smoke that results from using wood that is moist. The denser the wood, the longer your fire lasts as it consumes the wood slowly. The dryer the wood, the less energy is spent absorbing the water in the wood. So the question is: what type of trees are best for firewood and what are the fastest growing trees for firewood?
Identifying Firewood Trees
Hardwood trees are easily identified as those that lose their leaves in the winter. Oak (Quercus), hickory (Carya) and ash (Fraxinus) are examples of hardwood trees and, because the wood is dense, they take longer to grow. Most softwood trees have needles, and include pine (Pinus), spruce (Picea) and fir (Abies). They release pleasant fragrances when burning but, because of the amount of moisture in the wood, the fire burns out quickly, taking the noisy cacophony it creates with it. Some softwoods are fast-growing, including Norway Spruce (Picea abies) and Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus). Softwoods light easily, and it's common to use softwood as kindling to start a fire.
While technically a hardwood, willow (Salix) grows beside water and retains a great deal of moisture. Willow trees can be harvested for firewood in as little as four years. Splitting and kiln drying are recommended to remove the moisture, but they end up as lightweight and fast-burning. Goat willow (Salix caprea) is harder grained than white willow (Salix alba) and burns longer.
Demystifying Poplar and Eucalyptus as Firewood
An anomaly in the classification of trees is the poplar (Populus). While it has the leaf-dropping characteristics of a hardwood, it soaks up moisture and is difficult to dry, likening it to a softwood. Kiln drying and circulating air is suggested immediately after harvesting, which is possible after 5 to 8 years of growth. When burning, it produces an odor that some find not to their liking, while others find comfort in the hint of sweetness. Poplar is a quick-lighting firewood but takes up to 12 months to season. It burns quickly, throws off some smoke and doesn't produce much heat, making it ideal for a warmer-season fire. Campers often turn to poplar for a fire that doesn't need to last long.
Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus) produces longer-burning wood than poplar or willow and takes only 4 years of growth before harvesting. Some species have a stringy grain, making them hard to split, but most do form the grain well and are good for firewood, producing heat like oak. It burns hot, and the flame is intense. Some wood stove manufacturers recommend against using eucalyptus because of these characteristics.
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- Down to Earth Homesteaders: Is Poplar Good for Firewood?