2004 Plant Of The Year | Oxydendrum arboreum

Nov 26, 2004 | Plant Of The Year

The Georgia Native Plant Society is pleased to announce that sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) has been selected as the organization’s 2004 Plant of the Year. The year-round beauty of this tree enhances natural settings and gardens, alike.

Sourwood is a small to medium-sized tree, usually 15 to 30 feet tall, though it is not uncommon to find specimens 50 feet tall. It is a member of the heath family (Ericaceae), making it a close relative of rhododendrons, azaleas, and mountain laurels.

In summer, sourwood bears a profusion of small, white, urn-shaped flowers, which are reminiscent of lily of the valley blooms. The blossoms dangle on gently drooping sprays, 4 to 10 inches long. These racemes give the tree a soft, lacy appearance and are a welcome sight during a time when most flowering trees are past their peak. Bees are appreciative of the nectar, and sourwood honey is renowned for its rich flavor.

The elliptical or lance-shaped leaves, 4 to 7 inches long, are sour to the taste. As the foliage emerges in early spring, it has a bronzy cast to it By summer, it is a glossy emerald green and acts as the perfect foil for the white blossoms. As early as late summer, the foliage begins to put on its colorful and long lasting autumn display, turning shades of orange, scarlet, crimson, and burgundy.

Contrasting beautifully with the vibrant fall foliage are the egg-shaped, creamy tan fruit capsules, which are displayed upright on curved stalks. Even after the foliage has fallen, these remain on the tree, darkening with age and imparting a picturesque winter silhouette. The heavily textured dark gray bark adds further winter interest.

Sourwood is native only to North America, and is found in the middle and southeastern United States, where it is most abundant in the mountain and piedmont regions. It is often found growing on moist slopes of hardwood forests, yet it is also well adapted to drier sites, such as ridges, field edges, roadsides, and clearings.

Like its ericaceous relatives, sourwood prefers a somewhat acidic soil high in organic matter. It will provide optimal flowering and best fall color if grown in full sun; however, it will also perform well in partial shade. In a garden setting, this adaptable tree is appropriate as a focal point and specimen tree or incorporated into a woodland edge as an understory tree. Sourwood has no serious disease or pest problems.

Prepared by Mary P. Tucker for the Georgia Native Plant Society.


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