With its modest profile and year-round interest, Oxydendrum arboreum – known commonly as sourwood – is one of the great trees for small spaces with a history of healing. The oval-shaped tree grows 20-25 feet tall.
The winter interest of many trees includes interesting bark and sourwood doesn’t disappoint. As the tree matures the bark becomes gray, ridged and scaly. Pioneers used to chew sourwood bark for mouth pain, draw its sap to relieve fever and brewed leaf tea for digestive maladies. Today sorrel leaf tea is widely used to slake the thirst of mountain climbers.
In spring the branches take a back seat to glossy green leaves 5-8 inches long and sour to the taste, hence the tree’s common name.
Summer ushers in drooping 4 to 8-inch clusters of waxy, fragrant white blooms very much like lily-of-the-valley. These are enticing to bees and in areas where the tree is endemic, sourwood honey is highly prized by locals.
The flowers make their parting bows, making way for unusual fruit that looks like brown, wooden capsules and contain numerous pointy seeds.
Enjoyable as the year has been, the show really begins in fall as the tree’s generous leaves take on intensely beautiful shades of brilliant crimson, purplish-red and sometimes yellow.
Winter, spring, summer, fall: Oxydendrum arboreum shines as a lawn specimen, a garden feature, an ornamental addition to larger trees or as a clump in a wide open space.