Nature puts on a glorious floral display in the spring, but she does save a few things for later, and one of the nicest is the summer show put on by sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum). In mid-to-late June, elegant sprays of creamy, bell-like flowers open up on plants from 8-30 feet tall. The common name ‘sourwood’ came from the sour tasting leaves, but the flowers bestow another common name: the lily-of-the-valley tree. The show lasts well into July, especially in the North Georgia mountains. The tiny spent flowers can carpet the ground underneath like summer snow.
Sourwood was voted by GNPS members as our Plant of the Year in 2004. Native to much of Georgia, this member of the heath family (Ericaceae) is related to some of the most recognized native shrubs and trees: blueberries, azaleas/rhododendrons, and mountain laurel. It can sometimes be found in the nursery trade, stocked by those who recognize its value in the Georgia landscape. If you don’t see it, ask for it! The floral nectar of sourwood is prized by beekeepers as the source of a very tasty run of summer honey, and they are careful to place their hives near the trees during the bloom season. Look for ‘sourwood’ honey at farmers markets.
Not content to wow you with pretty flowers and tasty honey, sourwood fall foliage is one of the most colorful around. Leaf color ranges from soft pink to purple to dark burgundy, often changing color as fall progresses. The tan-colored seed capsules add a lacy look to the fall display. Plant it for any one of these reasons and you’re sure to be happy with your choice.