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12/14/16- The Sourwood Tree

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by Meaghan English, TrueSouth Properties Wildlife Specialist

It is a weird hobby of mine to find unusual or uncommon trees in the woods. As soon as I spot them and the name doesn’t instantly come to mind, I make a mental note of as many physical characteristics as I can and then I go home and look it up in my southeast tree guide. A few weeks ago, I discovered a large tree with deeply furrowed bark and very light wood. As I began to research, I learned that this was a sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum). I will share with you what I learned about the physical characteristics, habitat, and uses of this rare find.

Physical Characteristics

            Oxydendrum arboreum is a tree that is often 50-60 feet tall with a DBH (diameter at breast height) of 10-12 inches. The tree itself is often leaning over a ravine or pond (where it is naturally occurring) and the bark is very dark and deeply furrowed. The leaves are often elliptical shaped with a serrated margin (it looks like teeth). The most definitive characteristic is the drooping flowers that hang from the leaves in clusters. In spring and summer, the leaves are yellowish green but they turn a deep red in fall.

Habitat

The sourwood tree thrives in mixed hardwood forests and is often a sign of a healthy forest. This tree often appears as a single tree on the edges of roads or on sloping ground. It can survive in moist habitats as well as drier ones like roadsides and along pastures.

Uses

            Bees and other insects utilize the nectar from the flowers. The honey is also sold in markets across the world for human consumption. The tree is mostly viewed as an ornamental but could be used as a landscape tree due to its brilliant fall foliage. The sourwood tree can be grown in partial shade or full sun and is also free of pests! The juice from the leaves is also used to make sourwood jelly. It is rumored that the Cherokee and Catawba tribes used the flower shoots for arrow shafts. Some decorative coasters have also been created using sourwood trees.

When you come across a leaning tree, take a good look at the leaves and the bark; you may be standing next to a sourwood tree. If you are a honey connoisseur, you may have already consumed honey and/or jelly from this tree. It is interesting to see how different trees in the southeast can be from one another, yet they all have some kind of impact on our culture and our history.

By: Red Clay

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