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.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (firstname.lastname@example.org).