Sourwood Tree

All about the Sourwood Tree

The sourwood tree is native to North America and most apt to be seen in the Southeastern portions of the United States. The tree is so named for it leaves which have a sour taste, but it doesn’t stop deer from munching on the branches. In decades past, the tree was used for medicinal purposes.




The sourwood tree is very popular for the bright orange-red color it turns during fall foliage. It normally grows to be around thirty feet tall but it can grow to be as high as sixty feet. It has panicles of white flowers that are shaped like a bell. These are quite large as the panicles are around ten inches long.

If you provide this tree with well-drained soil that is slightly acidic, you will most likely have a tree that is completely disease and pest-free. Plant your sourwood tree in the spring, and all you will need to do is to water and mulch until it starts to grow. It does great in the yard or on the patio. The leaves on the plant are a dark green and the branches have a unique droopy look.  The only trees with as nice a color are sassafras and black gum trees.

The sourwood tree is one of the first trees to change color in the fall. It grows primarily in zones 5 through 9A. While not yet a popular urban tree, the sourwood would be a great tree for planting in median strips along highways and parking lots. It also makes a nice shade tree in the backyard.

For those who make a living from trees, sourwood is used to make handles, and to use as firewood or pulp. The wood is too heavy to be used as a timber tree. Still, sourwood is a source of honey and you will find locals who do sell honey from the tree.

It needs hardly any pruning at all, just enough to make sure it grows with a single leader and doesn’t droop so much that cars or pedestrians cannot pass underneath it. It is moderately drought tolerant but if a severe drought sets in you will need to water the plant. It typically grows in a shape like a pyramid or has an oval shape. The sourwood is a slow grower, preferring well-drained soil. It is not fussy about soil content, however, being comfortable in clay and peaty loam, sun or shade.

The scientific name for the sourwood tree is Oxydendrum arboreum, and it is known not only as a sourwood tree but as a sorrel-tree as well. Because of its popularity, the tree is not particularly easy to find but with some persistence can be located. It is suspected that the tree would do well in urban areas but there is no history to back this up. Its bark and irregular outline make it a very nice looking winter tree. It also has fruit that is persistent throughout the winter so that birds can feed.

While the sourwood tree has few flaws, studies show that it doesn’t do well in areas with heavy air pollution. It is, however, strong enough to stand up to most wind and storms it might encounter. It is an outstanding tree which has a lot of positive ornament features. Rarely will you find a tree as strong as this one, with outstanding looks, which is disease and pest resistant and not invasive. As more and more people discover the sourwood tree it will be on the top of the list for landscapers and gardeners. If you should plant several of these trees in your yard, don’t be surprised if, during fall foliage, people stop by just to inquire about what type of tree you have growing in your yard.