One of the most beautiful small trees of the southern and eastern United States is the sourwood. Named for the sour taste of its leaves and sap, nothing else is sour about this tree with its gorgeous, lily-of-the-valley-like blossoms or its blazing fall foliage.
The sourwood tree is often found wild in the Appalachian mountains, growing between and among rhododendron and azaleas in the area’s acidic soil. As a sapling, it benefits from the shade thrown by taller trees.
Homeowners should keep this in mind and not grow this tree too close to the house or anything else that’s at risk for its limbs rubbing against it when it’s mature. Trees that are grown in the shade tend to produce fewer flowers less vivid fall colors. It’s a deciduous tree, so it loses its leaves in the fall.
The tree’s bloom time is in the summer, and during that time it is covered with masses of tiny, waxy white flowers borne in 4 to 8 inch long panicles. Some botanists claim that the fragrance of the flowers is slight, while others claim it to be creamy and delicious. Whether their smell is strong or not, the flowers are irresistible to bees, and the tree is prized for its honey along with its other attributes. By late summer the flowers turn into dry, hard, woody, bell-shaped capsules that persist throughout the winter.
For many gardeners, the thing that sets the sourwood apart is its fall foliage, which can rival that of any oak or maple. In the summer the alternate, tapered, finely toothed 5 to 8 inch long leaves are glossy green. In the fall, the leaves turn a spectacular red, purplish red or even gold.
The tree’s love of acidic soils makes it ideal for many areas in the south. However, the ground needs to be productive, moist and have good drainage. Some botanists claim that the sourwood can stand some drought, while others argue it is drought intolerant. It does need a medium amount of watering. What it does not tolerate well is pollution, so it’s rarely planted in cities.
The sourwood has a slender trunk covered with a gray, furrowed, scaly bark. The crown is oblong or oval. The tree grows about 13 to 24 inches per year when it’s young. Like all trees, it increases until the end of its life, and it can live between 100 and 200 years if it’s well-cared for. Deer like to nibble the leaves and twigs as they want to bite just about everything else, but the tree tolerates this well. The sourwood has no dangerous insect or disease problems, though twig blight and leaf spot have been known to occur. Overall, the sourwood is easy to take care of and easy to love.