Oxydendrum arboreum | Family: Ericaceae
Submission: Sarah Delany ’20 and Grace Warder ’20
Leaves – Deciduous, alternate, glabrous, dark green, 3-8 inches long, sour taste.
Twigs – Pendant branching drooping towards the tips of twigs.
Fruit – Small, ⅓ inches long, dry capsule that occurs in drooping clusters, seeds less than ¼ inch and pale brown, fruit ripens in autumn and persists throughout winter.
Bark – Gray, brown, tinged red, deeply furrowed with scaly ridges.
Marked by its beauty in all four seasons, the sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) flowers in the summer and spring, turns a brilliant red in the fall, and is decorated with strikingly white seed pods in the winter. Its pendant branches are recognizable from a distance as they droop towards the ground, forming a distinctly graceful outline.
This intolerant to moderately tolerant tree, largely found in the southeastern United States in the Appalachian region, prefers well-drained and slightly acidic soil. The sourwood is also fairly susceptible to damage from air pollution, as its roots are shallow and easily disturbed, making it unsuitable for life in urban areas. Access to well-drained, acidic soil, and a habitat undisturbed by human activity will leave the tree undaunted by pests or diseases. One of the few existing endemic trees, sourwoods exist only on this continent and cannot be found naturally anywhere else in the world. Its rarity is furthered by the fact that it has no recognized, related species. While sourwoods are usually found to be 60 feet tall in the wild, the largest known sourwood is 118 feet tall and two feet wide, living in Robbinsville, North Carolina. Despite the tall stance of sourwood trees, they are a relatively short-lived, rarely exceeding 80 years.
Although the name sourwood is lent from the tree’s acrid tasting leaves, other parts of the tree offer a broad range of benefits. Often used as a thirst-quenching agent by mountain climbers and outdoor enthusiasts, the leaves can be brewed into a hot tea or chewed raw. Tea made from the leaves is widely recognized as a treatment for gastrointestinal ailments such as diarrhea, indigestion, and dysentery. Historically, sourwood trees have also served medicinal purposes as chewing the bark is accredited for soothing intense mouth pain and the sap has been a proven remedy for fevers.
Sourwood, also known as Lily of the Valley, is renowned by beekeepers for the high-quality honey that their pollen lends. Possessing a light and exceptionally floral taste with notes of anise, spice, and gingerbread, sourwood honey is a premium product for most beekeepers. Honey from the sourwood tree is known as North Carolina’s most famous honey, so famous that Black Mountain, North Carolina hosts a Sourwood Festival every summer. At the festival, patrons can eat barbecue, compete in the “Sourwood Idol” singing contest, ride carnival rides, and of course taste the iconic honey in its purest form. The honey is celebrated for good reason; sourwood honey has been deemed the best honey in the world at the prestigious Apimondia World Honey Show.
Deane, G. 2012. Sourwood. Eat the Weeds and other things, too. [accessed November 13, 2019]. http://www.eattheweeds.com/sourwood/.
Seiler J, Jensen E, Niemiera A, Peterson J. 2019. Sourwood. Virginia Tech Dendrology Fact Sheet. [accessed November 13, 2019]. https://dendro.cnre.vt.edu/dendrology/syllabus/factsheet.cfm?ID=61.
Sourwood Honey. Honey Traveler. 2019. [accessed November 14, 2019]. https://www.honeytraveler.com/single-flower-honey/sourwood-honey/.
The 42nd Annual Sourwood Festival. 2019. [accessed November 14, 2019]. http://www.sourwoodfestival.com.