The Beauty And Benefits Of The Sourwood Tree

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Exceptionally good foliage from spring to fall, beautiful summer flowers, and a dense pyramidal form (the maximum height is 60′ feet, although the tree is usually smaller) make the sorrel or sourwood tree.

Oxydendrum arboreum is one of the most serviceable ornamentals hailing from the Southeast. 

Sourwood TreePin

The name sourwood comes from the fact that the leaves and twigs taste sour when they are chewed, but they do temporarily assuage thirst. 

Fortunately, the species is hardy all the way to the eastern coast of Boston and is now being planted on the Pacific Coast. 

However, it doesn’t do too well under crowded city conditions, and in dense woods, it may be little else than a tall, spirally twisted trunk with a few branches at the top. But bring the tree out into the open, where it gets sunlight and comes into its own.

Excellent Background For Sourwood Tree

Evergreens, especially hemlocks, make an excellent background for the showy sourwood, with its lustrous leaves, white summer flowers, and scarlet autumn dress. 

Planted alone as a lawn specimen, it may do all right, but with an evergreen background, even one tree will stand out so beautifully that it may easily be the most interesting plant in the place.

Snowy Flowers

The snowy flowers, which are produced in midsummer and last several weeks, are small and bell-shaped. 

They are similar to the flowers of the blueberry but are borne in gracefully pendulous racemes 8” to 10” inches long. 

Usually, they are profusely borne – and always at the very ends of the slightly- drooping branches so that the entire tree seems well-clothed in flowers in late summer.

A small dried capsule eventually replaces each individual flower. These capsules have ornamental value since they hang on the branches in gracefully drooping clusters all through fall and far into the winter—in fact, until winter winds or ice and snow break them off. 

Although they are light brown, certainly not as colorful as the fruits of some trees, they give the tree added interest over a long period.

Sourwood’s Brilliant Autumn Color

When the leaves first appear in spring, they unfold a light bronze, then gradually change to a splendid, lustrous green. 

Since they are about the same pleasing size and shape as mountain laurel leaves and are seldom marred by insects or disease, this tree is highly valued as an ornamental for its spring and summer leaf beauty alone. 

But when the leaves turn a brilliant scarlet in fall, it is outstanding. We all like to think of our native dogwood as being at the top of the list for the beauty of autumn color, but the glossy red leaves of the sourwood boast an even more beautiful shade.

However, the autumn color of the sourwood can be a great disappointment if the tree is planted where it does not receive the direct rays of the afternoon sun in late September and October, when the colors begin to change. 

This planting note holds for all plants with brilliant autumn coloring, for the late western sun in early fall has much to do with bringing bright fall colors to certain plants. 

On a tree growing in the open, the fall color will not be nearly as vivid on the tree’s north or cast sides as on the west.

Use Of The Sourwood Tree

The wood of this tree is hard and of little commercial value, although people who live where the tree is native (from Pennsylvania to Florida) have used the wood for tool handles and bearings for certain farm machines. 

Since the flowers appear at a time when there are few other trees in bloom, the bees seek the nectar from these flowers and make excellent honey from them.

Growing Requirements

Being a member of the heath family, which includes rhododendrons, azaleas, blueberries, and heathers, the sourwood requires acid soil for the best growth. 

This is not too difficult to provide, even in a limestone region, for some acid peat moss mixed with decayed pine needles or oak leaves and sprinkled with a few handfuls of aluminum sulfate gives just the right reaction. 

If the soil gradually becomes alkaline again, additional amounts of aluminum sulfate can be applied from tune to time.

A Low Maintenance Plant

Finally, this tree is not seriously infested with disease or insect pests. Consequently, it is another in the list of low-maintenance plants with which small homeowners should become familiar.

The tallest tree of this species is probably a specimen in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. It is 85′ feet tall with a 30-foot spread and a 6-foot, 1-inch trunk circumference.

44659 by Donald Wyman