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Sourwood is ideal as a centerpiece in your yard

September 28, 2016

When Van Morrison wrote and recorded the song, “Tupelo Honey,” he wasn’t just extolling a classic love ballad evoking Elvis Presley (whose hometown was Tupelo, Mississippi), but he was also exulting monofloral honey. This single-source honey, tupelo honey, gets its unique flavor because it is almost entirely made from nectar of a single plant. Besides tupelo honey there are other single-source honeys, such as orange blossom, buckwheat or wildflower.

But best of all is a honey that is the most highly sought after, from a small tree that blooms late in the season, when there is not much else for the bees to harvest. This rare honey is very light amber-colored with a rich, deep aroma, and an unforgettable honey flavor that is said to taste like caramel and gingerbread or baking spices with a distinct twangy aftertaste.

This is Sourwood Honey from the Sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum.) At a mature height of just 25 to 30 feet, this ornamental tree delights with iridescent green leaves that change to red, purple and yellow each autumn. The showy, urn-shaped white blossoms hang in clusters or panicles in July, long after most flowering trees have faded. The flowers look like hanging lily-of-the valley blossoms, and are just as fragrant. Native to eastern North America, the Sourwood or sorrel tree is hardy in USDA Zones 5-8. 

Sourwood bark is gray with hints of red. Its wood is quite heavy and sometimes used in furniture making because of its close grain. This strength made it a favorite for arrow making by the Cherokee and Catawba tribes. It is called sourwood because of the bitter taste of its leaves, yet many hikers use the leaves for a refreshing tea. Pioneers used sourwood tree to treat dysentery, diarrhea and indigestion.

The trees are medium-fast growing adding just a foot or two in height each year, but they are long lived and can survive 100 to 200 years.

This is a shallow-rooted tree that grows best away from other trees where there is no root competition. Choose a site with full sun and acidic soil. Dig a planting hole that is twice as wide as the root ball. Mulch around the base of the tree to keep grass from growing and competing with the fine roots for nutrients and water. After the first year you can fertilize lightly with a good slow-release organic fertilizer meant for acid-loving plants. 

Sourwood is ideal as a specimen tree as a centerpiece in your yard. Put one by your patio so you can enjoy the fragrant blooms and welcome shade. Plant trees in the fall so they put their energy into growing a strong root system. 

The writer Carson Brewer once said, “Most honey is made by bees. But sourwood is made by bees and angels.”

Plant a sourwood tree this fall, and you will be rewarded with flowers that are like an angel of the first degree, just like honey from the bee.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.