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Sourwood Brings Native Beauty to Landscapes

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SourwoodPhoto by Robert E. Lyons

Photo by Robert E. Lyons

Few native trees provide the ornamental landscape value as the sourwood,Oxydendrum arboreum. Panicles of lily-of-the-valley-type flowers followed by brilliant scarlet color in early fall make this tree a highly desirable landscape specimen.

Sourwood, also known as sorrel tree or lily-of-the-valley tree, is best known as an important source of honey for beekeepers. It is a small, undergrowth tree that grows throughout the Piedmont uplands and along Piedmont streams on well-drained lowland areas. The showy tree is commonly seen along highways and edges of hardwood forests of the Piedmont and the mountains.

Sourwood is among the latest of the trees to bloom each season, with white, bell-shaped flowers appearing from late June to August. The dense flower clusters resemble Japanese pieris, Pieris japonica, except the panicles of the sourwood are longer and more open. Maintaining this beautiful bloom in the fall against scarlet leaves makes it a spectacular landscape plant.

Planted in dense shade, the tree develops a slender trunk and small crown. Placed in the open landscape, it forms a short, often leaning trunk which divides into several stout, ascending limbs with an ornate appearance. As the tree matures, the bark becomes dense and cork-like, another design attribute.

SourwoodPhoto by Robert E. Lyons

Photo by Robert E. Lyons

Growth of the tree is somewhat slow and the tree is extremely difficult, almost impossible, to transplant from the wild. Your best bet is to locate a nursery that has them in containers. Sourwoods are native trees and may be difficult to locate, but the extra effort will be worth it.

The JC Raulston Arboretum (JCRA) is taking a look at the scarcity of cultivars that exist for this common native species which remains underrepresented in the home landscape. The JCRA views it as having great potential and welcomes the chance to examine new introductions that become available.

Darrell Blackwelder