Sourwood is a small to medium sized tree in the heath family, also known as Ericaceae. These distinctive trees are native to the Eastern United States, where they are often used as ornamentals. The sourwood tree is deciduous, and it is one of the first trees to turn in the fall, creating a bright patch of red color in the garden before losing its leaves. Many nurseries carry sourwood seedlings, for people who are interested in using them as ornamentals in their gardens.
The scientific name for sourwood is Oxydendrum arboreum, and the tree is also known as “sorrel tree,” in a reference to the distinctive sour, sorrel-like flavor that the leaves have. Some people like to chew the leaves to stimulate saliva production, although the leaves are not safe to swallow. The timber of sourwood trees is largely unusable, although large branches and trunk sections can be used for tool handles and as a source of exotic wood for cabinet inlay and other wood crafts.
In the spring and summer, sourwood trees have rich green leaves. The flowers of this plant grow on stalks, also known as racemes, and they are small, white, and bell-shaped. The flowers of many plants in the heath family are very similar; when you see sourwood in bloom, you can see the resemblance to manzanita, blueberries, and heather. Sourwood trees have grayish bark with a faint red tinge. In the early fall, the leaves start to turn, ultimately becoming a vibrant red before dropping from the tree.
Like other members of the heath family, sourwood is extremely hardy. These trees prefer poor, acidic soils to grow in, and they can withstand wind, rain, and other inclement weather, although they may adopt twisting growth habits to protect themselves from the elements. Sourwood can also be shaped, which makes it a useful ornamental for the garden. The flowers, incidentally, produce a prized nectar which contributes a unique flavor to honey; some bee keepers like to set up near sourwood trees to take advantage of this.
When kept clipped, a sourwood's size can be kept relatively small, making it more like a bush or shrub. These trees can also be allowed to grow and spread, although they will never become very large. There are a number of ways to use sourwood in the garden; a classic use of these trees is as a single accent in the middle of a lawn or in a patch of related trees and plants to provide visual contrast.