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OUTSIDE: Sourwood blooms, a beekeeper’s delight

By Steve Roark
Volunteer Interpreter, Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Sourwood does not stand out in the forest except this time of year when it is in bloom, and perhaps in the fall when it displays brilliant red colors.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) is locally called “sorrel” and is common in our area.  It tends to be a small understory tree growing under larger tree canopies.  The bark is a gray-brown color and has a blocky appearance when mature.  The leaves are lance shaped, thin, and finely toothed along the edge.  If you chew one you’ll get a sour taste.  In late June/early July the tree produces lovely sprays of small, white, urn shaped flowers that form in clusters that looks like Lily-of-the-Valley.  The flower nectar is very attractive to honeybees.

Sourwood honey is the trees main claim to fame, having a fabulous flavor and light golden color. Beekeepers have no problem selling it for a premium price.  Because it seldom gets large, the sourwood has no other commercial value. Early Settlers used the wood to make tool handles and runners for sleds.   The tree was also thought to have medicinal value, the leaves being used to make a tea to treat “nerves”, asthma, diarrhea, indigestion, and menstrual bleeding.  The Indians chewed the inner bark for mouth ulcers.

Sourwood is seldom used for landscaping in our area but is popular in the northeast and Europe. It is a good choice to plant, with its summer blooming, lovely flowers and some of the best fall foliage around. The leaf color ranges from red to purple to yellow, and all three colors are often on the same tree.