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Sourwood: More than Just a Pretty Tree

Ryan Griffin


“Most honey is made by bees.  But sourwood is made by bees and angels.” – Carson Brewer

I am one of the few lucky people at University of North Carolina that can claim to have grown up down the street from this great institution.  Naturally, prior to taking the Into the Woods: Literature and Nature course, I felt as though I already knew all there is to know about Chapel Hill.  In the fall, the leaves change into all sorts of beautiful colors.  In winter, better known as basketball season, the entire town stands behind its Tar Heels when they play against their rival Blue Devils.  In the spring, the trees release pollen that leaves a thin green coat on everything in sight.  In the summer, most of the college students leave, and it returns to its small town feel.  Needless to say, Chapel Hill has a unique identity of its own.  Where else can you see Carolina-blue fire trucks?  Through my work in this class, I have been able to rediscover a town that I have called home for so long.

Our efforts were focused entirely in Battle Park, which is maintained by the North Carolina Botanical Gardens.  Our objective was to create a tree inventory and map of wooded areas of the park.  My particular group worked in an area called Sourwood Loop.  In this partition of the woods, one immediately notices a canopy dominated by White Oaks and Tulip Poplars. Just below those trees are the Red Maples, Pignut and Bitternut Hickories, American Beech Trees, Sweet Gums and Sourwoods in the understory. Of these trees, the sourwood was the one that caught my attention.

This tree truly is in a class of its own; the sourwood is the only member of the oxydendrum genus.  It typically grows between 20 – 55 feet and lives approximately 80 years (Clarkson).  In the spring, the sourwood has small bell-shaped white flowers that are very fragrant (OPLIN).  The nectar from its flowers is very sweet and contributes to its highly regarded honey (Forler).  In contrast, when chewed, the oxalic acid present in its leaves result in a sour and bitter taste, which I experienced firsthand.

When I first began studying this tree in September, the nectar producing buds had already fallen, leaving behind droopy bright green leaves.  At first the sourwood seemed like the average tree that one would see when walking in a high elevation forest in North Carolina.  It was not until around late October that the beauty of this tree began to be apparent.  Just in our plot alone, there were sourwoods with leaves that boasted brilliant colors varying in shades of yellow, orange and red. This vast array of coloration is highly dependent on weather and temperature conditions.

The color displays are most vibrant when the weather consists of warm sunny days and long cool nights.  In these conditions, sugar production increases during the day and is isolated in the leaflets due to the gradual closing of veins.  When the sugar begins to accumulate and the leaflets are exposed to bright lights, the production of anthocyanin pigments is triggered, which contributes to the red color of the sourwood leaflets.  Since carotenoids are always present, the yellow coloration is consistent from year to year.  However, it is not until the chlorophyll, contributing to green pigmentation, in the leaves break down that these brilliant colors are revealed (Tackett). Beauty is not all that this tree has to offer.

In the past, European colonists and Native Americans would use the sourwood’s wood for a variety of things including tool handles, sliding bearings for wheels and machine parts, paneling, butter paddles, pipe stems, arrow shafts, sled runners and fuel wood (Coder).  Its practicality does not end there. The sourwood tree has been known to be effective in treating a number of ailments.  The Cherokee used sourwood infusions to treat diarrhea, indigestion, nervousness, asthma and spitting blood. The Catawba used it to treat menstrual issues and menopause.  One can also chew its leaves to quench thirst, or if swallowed, it can have a laxative property as well (Green).  Today, with the advancement of modern medicine, the use of the tree in these ways is rare.  Nowadays, it is more commonly used in the production of honey or jelly.

Sourwood honey is most popular in the lower Appalachian Mountains.  However, the supply of this particular type of honey is very limited because successful honey production is highly dependent on a variety of factors including weather conditions, short duration of the blooming period and declining supply of sourwood trees. More specifically, if there is a drought or lower than normal temperatures, then this would negatively affect the availability of honey.  Additionally, many sourwood trees are being lost to development (Forler).

If you are lucky enough to find the fabled sourwood honey, you will taste, as I did, what is regarded as possibly the best honey in the world.  In fact, it earned that title twice at the prestigious Apimondia World Honey Show (Deane).  Oddly enough, when sampling it, I could not help but take the same approach as I would for wine, which made me feel like quite the honey connoisseur.  As I opened the container, the honey stimulated my olfactory senses with a faint, yet noticeable anise fragrance.  When I put a dollop of it on my tongue, it first had a sweet taste.  As I moved it around my mouth and swallowed the honey, its smooth texture and slight bitter aftertaste became apparent. Its multidimensional and deep flavor was unlike anything that I have ever experienced before.

The sourwood tree is unique like the town in which it is located.  If you love world-renowned honey, look no further than the sourwood.  If you prefer something sourer or are having digestive problems, take a bite out of one of its leaves. If you appreciate beauty and everything else the sourwood has to offer, bask in its glory.


Class of 2014

Major: Biology B.S.

Hometown: Chapel Hill, NC


Works Cited:

  1. Clarkson, Aileen. "Facts About the Sourwood Tree." eHow. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2013.
  2. Coder, Kim D. "Sourwood Oxydendrum arboreum: The Honey Tree." Native Tree Series. The University of Georgia, June 2011. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.
  3. Deane, Green. "Sourwood." Eat The Weeds. Eat The Weeds LLC., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.
  4. Forler, Scott. "Sourwood Honey." Honey Traveler: Everything in the world about honey. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.
  5. "Sourwood." What Tree Is it?. Ohio Public Library Information Network (OPLIN), n.d. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.
  6. Tackett, Keith. "Why Leaves Changes Color." Northeastern Area. USDA Forest Service, 7 July 2011. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.