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Oxydendrum arboreum

Photo: Dr. Robert Polomski


When Sour Becomes Sweet

Look for our native sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) along road cuts and highway embankments in the Carolinas. This can’t-miss tree offers us two opportunities to appreciate its beauty. In mid-summer sourwood flaunts its 5- to 10-inch long sprays of fragrant, white, lily-of-the-valley-like flowers. I like to stand beneath its boughs and admire the hard-working honeybees collecting nectar from the tiny bell-shaped flowers and transforming it to delicious sourwood honey.
In the fall, the persistent fruit capsules are upstaged by the leaves that change from a shiny green to a mesmerizing brilliant red and lavender with yellow highlights. New England has its sugar maples – we have our sourwoods. At maturity, this 25 to 30 ft. tall tree maintains a slender pyramidal form with pendulous branches. In the winter, I appreciate the distinctive furrowed bark that looks as if it was sculpted by a skilled potter.
Although sourwood has captivated many of us, it’s rarely used in landscapes. Because this slow-growing native is difficult to propagate and produce under typical nursery conditions, you’ll find it more often on roadsides and in mixed hardwood forests than in garden centers. Nevertheless, I reserved a spot for a lone, wild sourwood seed to wend its way into my landscape where it can germinate, grow, and be admired by my neighbors.