Being a gardener and a beekeeper, I have come to realize how lucky I am to live in an area of the country where Sourwood trees (Oxydendrum arboreum) thrive.
Also called the sour gum, sorrel tree or Lily-of-the-Valley tree, this native mostly grows in the Appalachian mountains. In summer, the sourwood tree has long, drooping clusters of sweet smelling white, bell-shaped flowers. The name sourwood comes from the sour (or sharp acidic) odor and flavor of the leaves (from oxalic acid).
Truly a tree for all seasons, sourwood is one of our most beautiful natives and is ideal as a small specimen tree. It offers some of the best fall color among trees in the South with colors ranging from warm vibrant red to purple to yellow with all three colors often on the same tree. In winter, its hanging racemes of fruit capsules anchor in place despite winter storms until the new growth of spring.
If you want to plant a tree friendly to pollinators with seasonal interest, consider adding one to your landscape. It prefers slightly acidic (pH 5.5-6.5), well-drained soils and can be grown in full sun or partial shade although flowering and fall color are best in full sun.
Apply a heavy mulch to keep its roots cool and keep watered during an intense drought. The roots of forest trees, and the Sourwood in particular, are well suited for gleaning the nutrients from fungi rich soils. Sourwood trees will benefit from bark mulch and well-rotted leaf mold similar to their native forest floor.
We know that honeybees gather nectar from the most appealing flowers to make delicious honey. Its color, aroma and flavors will change throughout the season and every year depending upon the region, the climate and the type of flower a honeybee visits.
Wine makers call these ever-changing environmental factors “terroir.” Think of sourwood honey from our own backyard, lavender honey from France or tupelo honey from Georgia. These honeys harvested from a single floral source are called varietals and the sensory qualities of these honeys cannot be replicated in other terroir — so those commercially made honey bears do not express terroir.
Every drop of honey is truly a taste of the particular place it was harvested. The diverse flavors of honey range from fruity, floral, grassy, woody or smoky dependent upon the floral source and where you are in the world. Honey made from the sourwood tree is prized worldwide by connoisseurs and honey purists.
It has won best honey in the world twice at the prestigious Apimondia World Honey Show and won awards in the Black Jar Honey Tasting Contest in Asheville. Carson Brewer was an American journalist and conservationist, known for his documentation of the folk life of the surrounding Appalachian communities of East Tennessee. He wrote, “Most honey is made by bees. But sourwood honey is made by bees and angels.”
Honey is an agricultural product just like wine, olive oil, cheese or chocolate and it begins in the forests and fields where flowers are blooming. In McDowell County, the sourwood trees bloom from mid-June to late July. Under very favorable conditions, the nectar is so abundant, it can be shaken from the blooms in small drops.
However, a lot of years, the wind from a summer thunderstorm will cause the blooms to drop prematurely and rob bees and us of a bountiful harvest of sourwood honey. A short blooming season and shortage of rain and lower-than-normal temperatures can also affect nectar supplies.
This year, a lot of local beekeepers have experienced a successful year for sourwood honey. Pollen analyses show a wide range in percentage and colors of our sourwood honey. Most sourwood honeys are mixtures of sourwood, clover, and a few others. The North Carolina voluntary standard calls for greater than 51% of a single floral concentration before the honey should be called that varietal. When it comes to quality and taste, no other honey can match sourwood honey.
Containing antibacterial properties and anti-oxidants, raw honey is a good natural sweetener and can help heal wounds and prevent infection.
If you are interested in local honey, we have our own honey trail here in the county — https://www.mcdowellcountyhoneytrail.org/ If you are interested in trying honeys from all over the world, sidle up to the bar at the Bee Charmer in Asheville to try honey varietals from near and far.
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