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Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)


Sourwood is a small to medium-sized tree found along many Arboretum trails. It ranges from Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, south to northwest Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. As a member of the Heath Family (Ericaceae), it is related to such plants as blueberries, rhododendrons, and azaleas. The white, bell-shaped flowers are borne in terminal one-sided clusters and appear in late June and July. The fruits mature in late summer and persist on the flower stalks, often into fall and winter. Because the flowers are often near the top of the trees, they may be difficult to see under a forest canopy. The finely toothed leaves, 5-8 in. long, turn a yellow to crimson red in the fall. A good place to observe these trees in bloom is a Sourwood study plot just below the Arboretumís Elmore Holly Collection.

The ridged and often deeply furrowed bark of Sourwood is readily identified especially in older trees where it becomes distinctly blocky. Trees may grow 50-60 ft high, with trunks that are often bent or leaning. The common name comes from the sour taste of the leaves and twigs. Leaves and bark of Sourwood were used by Native Americans and early settlers to treat a variety of ailments such as mouth ulcers, asthma, indigestion, and kidney and bladder ailments. Sourwood has little timber value, but the heavy wood has been used for handles, fuel wood, and specialty items. Sourwood honey is a favorite of many.

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University of Tennessee - Forest Resources AgResearch and Education Center
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