June 30, 2022
Last week was National Pollinator Week, but there’s no reason we can’t celebrate it this week, too. The sourwood trees (Oxydendrum arboreum) have been in full bloom for a while now. The one in the forest behind my house is absolutely gorgeous, and so densely loaded with huge white flowers that I can barely see the green leaves. The sweet scent fills my nostrils and perks up my whole world. It’s truly nose and eye candy. And, boy howdy, do the bees ever love that tree!
Before moving to the North Carolina mountains, I’d never heard of sourwood, perhaps because I’m a forester from the west, or maybe because the tree is, according to the US Forest Service, of little value as a timber species. So, I did some homework, starting with the Arbor Day Foundation’s website:
“A native tree of North America, the sourwood is one of the few endemic trees that is not found in other continents unless planted and has no related species. The name Sourwood is derived from the acrid taste of its leaves, but tea made from these leaves is widely used by mountain climbers as a thirst-quencher. Pioneers used the sap as one ingredient in a concoction used for treating fevers; the bark for chewing to soothe mouth pains; and leaf tea for treating diarrhea, indigestion and dysentery. But the best-known byproduct of the sourwood tree is the hard-to-find and extremely delicious honey that bees produce from the fragrant blossoms.”
Sourwood honey is a local favorite and, after tasting it, I understand why. It is sweet, fragrant, heavenly.
My home is located near the center of the tree’s native range in the upland forests of the southeast. Sourwood reaches its largest size on the western slopes of the Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee, where they grow up to eighty feet in height. Around here, they are generally 20-30 feet tall.
The tree is prized as an ornamental, not only for its plentiful summer flowers, but also because of its yellow, red, and purple fall colors. Other common names include sorrel tree, sorrel gum, sour gum, arrow wood, elk tree, lily-of-the-valley tree, and titi tree.
I just can’t get enough of this amazing tree.
(Photo credits: Top-University of Delaware; below-S.G. Benson)