Sourwoods: Defying the Tree Archetype
“He showed me several thin sourwoods that had changed direction—bending at almost right angles in order to find more sunlight. A big tree falls, blue sky appears, and off goes the sourwood.”
-- Noah Adams, Far Appalachia: Following the New River North
I have always had an appreciation for nature, though this is the first time I have had a real education on my immediate surroundings. Before English 266, Into the Woods, my experience with natural education was abstract; it was about the general environment and not about what was happening in my own backyard. Before this class I knew very little about trees and recognized only a few different species. When my group was assigned out plot, in the high elevation woods in Battle Park, off Sourwood Loop, none of us knew very much about identifying trees, and there was a significant learning curve that came with their identification. Sourwood was the second type of tree we tried to identify, and we had a decent amount of trouble when it came to deducing the true identity of a sourwood tree. The pictures in the different books we were using to identify tree species made the process somewhat complicated, as the books tended to contradict each other, and made us unsure in many of our identifications. However, after a while we tentatively decided that the tree was a sourwood, and after reading in one of our identification books that sourwood leaves tasted sour or bitter, we decided to test one of the leaves of the tree we believed to be a sourwood, to determine if it tasted as the book described. So there we sat on the forest floor, munching on a sourwood leaf.
As you can imagine, the plot off Sourwood Loop in Battle Park is filled with sourwood trees. I am a very visual person, I love to take pictures and the Sourwoods were the first tree in our plot that really stood out to me. I think the Sourwood tree is a really unique, endearing and beautiful tree. It has a lot of character, which makes it very distinct. It twists up towards the sky, growing sideways at a certain point, spreading out both vertically and horizontally. It grows as if it is making a natural arch to adorn the woods around us. It is unlike any tree I have seen before, and not what comes to mind when I think of trees. It does not grow straight and tall toward the sky, but gradually winds its way up, taking its own time.
The bark is a dark brown, probably the darkest bark I have seen in our plot, and it is deeply furrowed. There are deep ridges between each section of the bark, forcing each section into a somewhat pyramidal shape. The leaves are oblong, oval shapes that are a shade of green in the summer, and a beautiful soft red or pink in the fall. The Sourwoods in our plot all seem to grow in a similar pattern, where they grow up at an angle, and then arch horizontally, until they reach a point that is parallel with the ground, and then shoot up vertically again. We had some trouble identifying the younger sourwoods in the plot, as the bark on these younger trees is not deeply furrowed, and the growth of the tree is not as arched. However, the leaves and branching patterns on the younger trees look exactly like those on the older trees, which was very helpful in identification.
The most striking aspect of the Sourwood is the way it grows to the side instead of continuing its vertical growth. Many believe these sourwoods grow to the side in search of sunlight (2). When space becomes available to the Sourwood, and sun is able to filter to it through the surrounding trees, the Sourwood takes advantage by growing horizontally to reach areas with better sun. From the research (3) and the images available online, it seems like sourwoods that are planted for residential use, outside of a forest like Battle Park, grow much straighter than the ones we observed in our plot. In a residential area, sunlight is more readily available. In our plot we had a significant number of large, very tall oaks that made finding sunlight more challenging for the trees that were not as tall. Our group calculated approximate heights for the largest trees in the plot, and the largest sourwood and the largest white oak grow within feet of each other. The oak is approximately 24.2 meters tall, while the sourwood is 14.5 meters, and it grows away from the white oak towards the trail, which is more open. It is also suggested that sourwoods grow best when there is little foot traffic (2), which is probably why the sourwoods in our plot have grown so large compared to those growing in residential areas.
Sourwoods act as a source of food for many creatures in the wild, especially deer and bees (1). Deer mainly eat off the younger shoots, and bees generate a special type of Sourwood honey (1). The most commonly known use of sourwoods is for this gourmet honey, as the wood is very difficult to use in other ways as it is “difficult to dry properly and difficult to work” (1). The leaves of a sourwood do taste sour or bitter due to the presence of oxalic acid (4), but there is not a lot of information that I could find on a biological purpose to the sour taste. The presence of oxalic acid lends the Sourwood tree many medicinal and herbal uses (1), which lead to its common use by Native Americans and early settlers (4).
Although the Sourwood tree does not have many classical tree uses, it is important for other reasons. It plays a role in the environment by acting as a source of food for creatures, such as bees and deer (1). It can be used for medicinal purposes and leads to the creation of a prized gourmet honey. However, I think my favorite part about the Sourwood tree is the way that it grows in the wild, as it does just that. It grows wild. It does not follow the classical pattern of tree growth. I love the individuality of the tree, and it stood out to me in Battle Park more than any other. I thought the area around the high elevation woods plot was incredibly beautiful, as it had a high proportion of sourwoods compared to other parts of the park. In our plot alone, there were sixteen sourwood trees, and I could see countless others outside of our assigned plot. The way the Sourwood trees arch, growing at what seems like a forty-five degree angle made them very identifiable. It seemed to me as if the Sourwoods were decorating the forest around me, in their own unique, natural way.
Class of 2014
Apex, North Carolina
1. Coder, Kim D. Sourwood Oxydendrum Arboreum: The Honey Tree. Native Tree Series. Warnell: School of Forestry and Natural Resources, June 2011. Web. 1 Dec. 2013. <http://www.warnell.uga.edu/outreach/pubs/pdf/forestry/sourwood%20pub%2011-13.pdf>.
2. Adams, Noah. Far Appalachia: Following the New River North. New York: Delacorte, 2001. Web.
3. Kidder, Chales. "In the Garden: Sourwood | Crozet Gazette." In the Garden: Sourwood | Crozet Gazette. Crozet Gazette, 05 July 2012. Web. 04 Dec. 2013. <http://www.crozetgazette.com/2012/07/in-the-garden-sourwood/>.
4. Deane, Green. "Sourwood." Eat The Weeds and Other Things Too. Web. 04 Dec. 2013. <http://www.eattheweeds.com/sourwood/>.