Bitternut Hickory Firewood
by Rick Coleman
Here in suburban Maryland, you would have to say that the best all-purpose firewood is red oak, both because it is a very good wood--all its characteristics are positive--and because it is one of the most abundantly-growing local trees.
There are other trees that may grow as abundantly as Quercus Rubra--poplar, sweetgum, red maple and beech come to mind, but with the exception of beech--whose rock-solid flying buttress-style trunk bases keep it firmly implanted and thus not as available as a firewood source--these other woods are much inferior to red oak.
Having said this, I must add that red oak is not the absolute best wood you can find here. For me, the tree that owns this title--and unfortunately you can't find much of it here--is bitternut hickory.
Bitternut, which you may have to venture into the swamp to get, burns even hotter than the oaks (26.7 M BTU/CD vs. 25.5 for white oak and 24 for red), smells great while burning, and forms coals like no other wood I have seen. In fact, its only drawback, other than its scarcity here, may be this strength: it makes coals so prolifically that you are forever having to dump them to have enough room in your firebox for fresh wood. (Next time I'll order a bigger chimney built for burning bitternut!)
While the choice of red oak as best general wood (in great supply) must be seen as an objective judgment, that of bitternut as absolute best is admittedly subjective. Other contenders include the aforementioned beech (the equal of red oak in heat value, but a devil to split once cured), white oak (only negativity is moderate sparking), the other hickories (no comment, haven't used--also relatively rare here), black locust (the local king of heat content), and even mulberry (heats like white oak, smells OK, but low combustibility and sparks like Mt.
None of these latter woods hold a candle to bitternut hickory though. Just like red oak, it's all positive--burns readily, splits fairly easily, smells great, doesn't smoke or spark, and gives high heat. And, being a hickory, it's also great for smoking meat. Red oak, then, is the best easily-obtainable firewood here, and bitternut hickory is absolute best, hands down.