It is not the largest tree in the forest, but that doesn’t mean the sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) doesn’t stand out in a crowd of hardwoods and pines. This time of the year, these medium-sized trees are easy to spot along The North Carolina Arboretum’s approach road, fringing the forest perimeter, leaning towards the light, their brilliant red leaves enriching the landscape.
Sometimes known as the sorrel tree or lily of the valley tree, the sourwood really is a tree for all seasons. North Carolina State University’s Cooperative Extension Service describes it as a “beautiful small specimen flowering tree with multi-season interest for lawns, patios, shade gardens or open woodland areas.” You’ll find it most often growing in among native azaleas and rhododendrons, fellow members of the Heath family, in acidic soil on rocky wooded slopes.
Like its native cousins, the sourwood is known for its beautiful flowers that resemble lily of the valley and the dense flower clusters of Pieris japonica.“Maintaining this beautiful bloom into the fall against scarlet leaves makes it a spectacular landscape plant,” notes Darrell Blackwelder in his article “Sourwood Brings Native Beauty to Landscapes.”
Landscapers aren’t the only fans of sourwood trees. Bees and beekeepers are, too. The tree’s long blooming season (June-August) provides a rich source of nectar, and the honey that’s produced is considered by connoisseurs to be one of the finest monoflower honeys in the world, commanding prices more than twice that of clover honey.
Even when its blooms have faded and its leaves have fallen, the sourwood is a stunning tree. In home gardens, it typically grows 20 to 25 feet tall with a straight, slender trunk and small crown. In the wild, it can grow as high as 60 feet. As it matures, its bark becomes fissured and ridged, provides a striking contrast to winter landscapes. These sun-loving slow-growers do not transplant well from the wild. Your best option is to purchase specimens from reliable nurseries and garden centers.
Sourwoods are one of the first to show their fall color with bright scarlet red foliage. They are great indicators of the fall season, followed by black gum (Nyssa sylvatica). Pay a visit to The North Carolina Arboretum and see for yourself the scarlet beauty these native trees contribute to our abundant autumn color. While you’re here, stroll through our gift shop and pick out the perfect honey pot before heading to the WNC Farmer’s Market for a jar of sourwood honey. Your taste buds will thank you all winter long.
Photo credit: Gregg Solms (second image), David Lewis (third image)