Winterberry Farm Primitives

This blog is now devoted to gardening with native plants with a focus on those species native to the east coast of the United States. With an MS in Agricultural Science from the University of Delaware and my love of native plants, I hope to help folks see the beauty and necessity of using native plants in your garden instead of exotic plants. Did you know that our native song birds and native insects are disappearing as our local environments continue to change?
For those who come to this page to see my 'Winterberry Farm Primitives' blog can now be found at where I will post new additions to my online antiques shop at and discuss various subjects about primitive antiques.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Outrageous Oxydendrum arboreum (Sourwood)!

The Outrageous Oxydendrum arboreum, otherwise known as Sourwood, is a little-known native tree that produces wonderful, fragrant Lily-of-the-Valley-like flowers all summer long from late June to August. The name 'Sourwood' comes from the taste of the leaves that have a sour taste when chewed. Sourwood is found in abundance in the Great Smokey Mountains of Tennessee and throughout the Piedmont uplands. It can also be found near streams in the Piedmont area that are not in floodplains. This is one tree that will do well in either direct sun or as an understory tree. In the sun, Sourwood is a multistem tree with several twisted and gnarled trunks. As an understory tree, Sourwood forms a single trunk and a columnar habit.
Its native range runs from southern Pennsylvania down to northern Florida and across to Ohio and Alabama. Sourwood is a member of the Ericaceae family that includes rhododendrons and azaleas, so it likes the acidic soil found along the east coast and will not do well in soils with high limestone content. One of the wonderful things about this tree, besides the great flowers and bright red fall color, is the color and shape of its bark, Sourwood bark is gray with deep fissures that adds great texture and design to your winter garden. Of course, it will take several years for the bark to mature but it is definitely worth the wait! The maximum size for Sourwood is 8o feet tall but in most circumstances it will reach a mature height of 20-50 feet. It does have some insect pests but none of any consequence and it has no known major disease pests. So no need for insecticidal or fungal sprays with this great tree. It will flower best in full sun and makes a great specimen plant for your garden. So, why grow Sourwood instead of other beautiful native trees? Well, besides its fantastic fragrant flowers, its wonderful bright green leaves, its unbelievable fall color in reds, maroon and purple, and its outrageous bark, Sourwood produces fantastic HONEY! Yes, Sourwood honey is sold by several companies in the south! MtnHoney in Georgia ( sells Sourwood honey and this is their comment on the honey: "Sourwood honey is extra-light to light amber color and extremely aromatic, with a distinctive rich honey flavor. In local markets it commands a premium price. When it comes to quality and taste, no other honey can match Sourwood Honey." Go to their website and read the information on their honey and then google sourwood honey to see what pops up! This tree is a source of food for our native honeybees that are rapidly declining in their native ranges due to exotic bees that are able to feed on plants that the native bees cannot process well because the plants are exotic. Sourwood is also considered a medicinal plant and even though I DO NOT recommend you try to self medicate with plants, Sourwood leaves have been used to treat symptoms of several illnesses. The leaves are also consedered edible and can be used to allay thirst. They are said to have a pleasant acidic taste. One thing about Sourwood, once planted it does not like to be disturbed nor does it like dense, hardpacked soil. The best place for your Sourwood is a bright sunny location with good drainage and a soil rich in acidic organic matter. Do not add acid to the planting hole or try to 'feed' the tree an acid-rich fertilizer, do your homework and get a soil test. If your soil is rich in acid and organic matter, well-drained and light in texture, make sure to consider this wonderful tree! It takes a little more work with the Sourwood than most of the other trees that I have already discussed BUT the work is worth it the first time you smell the fragrance and see the wonderful fall color of this little known beauty.


  1. I found your blog through Blotanical. I like your interesting information about native plants.

  2. Excellent blog! Interesting information about uses for the Sourwood...and you included one of the most important pictures for showcasing the Sourwood - the beautiful, well grooved bark! I have an 80 foot Sourwood in my back woods and it has the most beautiful bend in the trunk. The leaves turned a unique pinkish, blush rose color this past fall. One of my favorite trees!
    I noticed that some of my Sourwoods have the fringe flower and some don't. Is this a male/female tree thing? Thanks for your blog!