Sourwood is an underused landscape tree with magnificent color


Our fall color is beginning to develop and sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is one of the first to show itself. Trees aren’t large but their unique orange to red leaves stand out gloriously. Their color has been pretty for a couple weeks now and they’ll hang on for a few weeks more.

In my opinion the only tree common to this area with similar dramatic color is black gum. Sourwood can bring a property border to life in fall. It also makes a nice specimen tree and can tolerate the shade of taller trees like sweetgum and red, water or willow oak.

Finely toothed leaves about three to eight inches long and one to three inches wide emerge singly from stems. Foliage is dense and glossy and somewhat weeping or drooping. This gives the tree a robust appearance and explains why fall color can be so dramatic.

For those who want to incorporate more native plants into their landscape sourwood fits the bill. Sourwood isn’t used much as a landscape tree, but it probably should. It has few disease or insect problems and it’s not invasive. Deeply fissured bark on somewhat gnarled trunks has unique winter appeal.

One problem sourwoods do have is they don’t tolerate pollution as well as many other species. They also don’t thrive in compacted soils. This might make them a marginal choice for urban areas.

Trees flourish in sandy acid soils, not surprising as they belong to the blueberry family. Wood is hard and heavy, making it resistant to wind damage. Sourwoods typically reach heights of 25 to 30 feet, so they aren’t large shade trees. Occasionally 50 foot specimens occur in the wild.

Sourwoods are probably appreciated most by bee keepers. Sourwood honey is among the most sought after in the world. It rarely if ever crystalizes.

Plants bloom in late spring and slightly fragrant white flower clusters persist all year long. These flowers somewhat resemble lily of the valley flowers so some folks call sourwoods ‘lily of the valley’ trees.

It doesn’t end there. Sourwood leaves make a great tea. One way to check its identification is to chew on the leaves. They contain oxalic acid, giving them a flavor similar to sour apples. The tea has that same pleasant taste. It also has been used as a thirst quenching drink. Blossoms can be used as a tea or concentrated and boiled down to make jelly.

Sourwood also has a long history of medicinal use. Among these are: asthma, diarrhea, indigestion and to control excessive menstrual bleeding. Bark and foliage teas are natural diuretics. Not surprisingly, herbalists have used them to treat fevers and urinary problems. According to several sources, mouth sores can be relieved by chewing the inner bark or making a tea from it.

Anything that influences kidney function could be a problem for people taking certain medications. Therefore, as with all herbal medications don’t pretend you are a doctor if you’re not. Always consult your medical professional before using any herbal medicine, particularly if you’re taking prescribed drugs.

sourwood seedling showing brilliant color

sourwood seedling showing brilliant color

sourwood foliage standing out against the rest

sourwood foliage standing out against the rest

Sourwood foliage showing this year's blossoms still hanging on

Sourwood foliage showing this year’s blossoms still hanging on

jar of tasty sourwood honey with a piece of comb

jar of tasty sourwood honey with a piece of comb

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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