Plant Lore: Sourwood

sourwood flowersSourwood does not stand out in the forest except when it is in bloom, and perhaps in the fall when it displays brilliant red colors.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is also called “sorrel”, and is very common in our area.  It tends to be a small understory tree growing under trees making up the main forest canopy.  The bark has a blocky appearance with a gray-brown color.  The leaves are lance shaped, thin, and finely toothed along the edge.  If you chew one you’ll get a sour taste.  In late June/early July the tree produces lovely sprays of small, white, urn shaped flowers that form in clusters that look similar to Lily-of-the-Valley.  The flower nectar is very attractive to honey bees.

Because it seldom gets large, the sourwood has no commercial value.  Sourwood honey is famous for its flavor, and beekeepers have no problem selling it for a premium price.  Early Settlers used the wood to make tool handles.  The tree was also thought to have medicinal value, the leaves being used to make a tea to treat “nerves”, asthma, diarrhea, indigestion, and menstrual bleeding.  The Indians chewed the inner bark for mouth ulcers.

Sourwood is seldom used for landscaping in our area, but is a very popular ornamental in the northeast and is cultivated in Europe.  The showy flowers and brilliant red fall foliage makes it a good choice to plant near your home

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