This absolutely gorgeous ornamental tree features showy stalks of bell-shaped, fragrant white flowers and glossy, rich-green leaves that turn brilliant red, pinkish, or purple in fall, creating an attractive foil for long, silvery capsules that remain throughout the winter. The deciduous tree has an oval-shaped crown and graceful, slightly drooping branches. It prefers full sun and grows 25-30 feet tall in most well-drained soils. Its common names “sourwood” and “sorrel” come from the sour taste of its leaves. It’s also known as “lily-of-the-valley tree” because its flowers resemble those of the plant of the same name.
While not overly tolerant of urban pollution or drought, it’s an excellent specimen tree on lawns or in gardens. Bees use the tree to produce honey valued for its color and flavor.
Ohio is at the northern edge of sourwood’s range, where it’s found in about a dozen counties. It often grows on upland slopes among oaks and pines. Plant it in small groupings, in woodland gardens, as a specimen near patios, or use as an understory tree. Provide mulch and water in summer, but don’t plant groundcover or grass at the base because the tree doesn’t like to compete for nutrients.
Grows 25-30’ tall and 20’ wide.
Thrives in full sun but will adapt to partial. Flowers poorly in shadier sites.
Prefers normal moisture and acidic soils, but grows well in well-drained loamy, moist, sandy, and clay soils.
Creamy-white flowers appear in droopy, one-sided panicles at branch tips, followed by silvery-gray capsules that persist through winter.
Oblong, laurel-like green leaves are 4-8” long and finely toothed. Fall foliage ranges from crimson red to reddish-purple or even yellow.
Gray bark is scaly with deep vertical fissures.
Sourwood is a host plant for 14 species of lepidoptera larvae, including royal walnut (caterpillar and moth pictured here), lettered sphinx, red-winged sallow, and white-marked tussock (caterpillar pictured here) moths. Deer browse sourwood twigs and leaves, and the nectar is gathered by many bees.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Pioneers used the sap in a concoction to treat fevers. Chewing the tree bark soothed mouth pain, and leaf tea was used to treat diarrhea, indigestion, and dysentery.
Sourwood nectar is prized for its use as gourmet honey, and the sour-tasting leaves are often used by mountain climbers to make tea.
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