As The Sourwood Turns

As the sourwood turns, so turns the rest of the garden. It has begun.

The sourwood, Oxydendron arboreum, is like the canary in the coal mine, the leading indicator in this case, of the opening salvo of the Autumnal turning of the leaves. It is the starting gun, the red scarf of the pretty ponytailed vixen thrown down at the drag race, red being the appropriate metaphor for the vivid leaf color revealed as the chlorophyll drains with the lesser daylight hours.

Some quick plant facts about Oxydendron arboreum:

Size: 20 to 30 feet tall
Hardiness: USDA Zones 5-9
Prefers moist but well drained acid soil
Light: Sun to part shade
Attractive to birds and pollinators
Native to North America, mostly seen east of the Mississippi and in the Southeastern US
Blooms: mid summer with fragrant white panicles
Gorgeous red fall color, often with the white spent flower stems still intact

That last item is how we first noticed this tree, the red leaves with white tassels stood out amongst the sea of fall foliage on the highway between Knoxville, TN and Asheville, NC. We have made many trips along this road and have always admired the smallish tree of red and white, but did not know what it was. The identity of the mystery tree was learned when a photo was featured on the front page of the Asheville newspaper to illustrate the fall foliage of the Smoky Mountains. Folks come from all over the world to witness the sight of the painterly colors washed over the misty mountains, and a mighty fine sight it is, too.

November 2005

May 2005

While plant shopping at the Gardener’s Place inside the Biltmore Estate in Asheville in 2003, a small specimen of the sourwood was spotted, purchased, brought home and planted in the woodland garden. It was not only the fall foliage color but also the more narrow growth habit of the sourwood that made it the perfect choice for the pointy tip of the garden bed seen in the two photos above from 2005. We had noticed that the sourwoods growing along the highway were crowded closely with the other wild trees, standing like crimson pillars against greens and golds in the autumn. It was the perfect choice to join other young trees that were planted to try to cast some shade in that area of the garden after the loss of the majestic maple Ferngully.

October 26, 2009 new 031 (2)
Nothing more than a single stick for a couple of years, it was in 2005 that the leader shot up several feet in one growing season, finally looking like it had the makings of a fine tree. Each year since, the sourwood has grown exponentially ever upward, seen above on the far right in October, 2009 along with the golden Ferngully replacement. (Also in 2009 a special surprise visitor showed up in a photo taken of the sourwood in full flower, click here to see who it was.)

It has now truly gained stage presence, turning into a star in the fall garden.


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16 Responses to As The Sourwood Turns

  1. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Your little visitor also liked the panicles on the sourwood tree. She is such a beauty. I wonder if I could find one of these beauties for my little garden. I will have to see what I can find. Thanks for the reminder of how beautiful she is. Have a great weekend.

    Hi Lisa, thanks. I hope you can find a sourwood tree for your garden. It is upright and somewhat narrow, perfect for a smaller space. Now I know what the sweet scent is in that part of the garden. I didn’t realize the flowers were fragrant and was always looking around for what could be perfuming that part of the garden, surely not the compost bin which is right there, HA. You, too, have a wonderful weekend.

  2. Lovely, lovely tree, Frances. Ever had any sourwood honey? It’s delicious.

    Thanks Georgia. I have seen the sourwood honey at the markets but never tried it. Next time…

  3. gail says:

    It’s a fantastic tree. When my friend Paul was in the nursery business he talked me into getting it and it was beautiful for awhile. He lives on a ridge that’s acidic and it thrived there, but, not in my nearly neutral, poorly draining soil. Your beautiful photos and description tempt me to try it again! That was a cutie pie visitor! That’s reason enough to plant one again! xoxogail ps I like sourwood honey, too.

    Hi Gail, thanks. It is a wonderful tree. Both the Financier and I agree that whenever we move, if we do, we will always plant a sourwood tree. If you can locate one, try again maybe!

  4. Your sourwood is definitely coming into its own. I think one of the reasons that gardening can have such a powerful grip is that we see things in our mind’s eye and aren’t discouraged by a moment in time that is the present. Your once upon a time little stick that you took a chance on is now a real tree to be enjoyed by all the residents of Fairegarden.

    Thanks Michaele. Gardening is certainly all about hope for the future and suspension of disbelief that a stick can and will turn into a magnificent tree. All it takes it time and a few successes under one’s belt to help a little. I once read that we should always plant radish seeds, even if we don’t like radishes, just for the nearly instant gratification of germination.

  5. Cyndi says:

    Thanks so much for showing the sourwood tree! I have heard about them since we moved to Western North Carolina but had not seen the blooms except after they have fallen and brown. I will look closer for them now that I know the leaf! I appreciate your sharing your knowledge so much! Smiles, Cyndi

    Smiles to you, Cyndi! Look for the red foliage and the white streamers as the trees begin turning there in WNC. They are not numerous, but I believe a group has been planted along 240 where all those grasses and evergreens are, on the way from I-40 to downtown Asheville.

  6. Very pretty little tree….for me it’s the Sumac turning that is the indicator!

    Thanks Stacey. Sumacs turning here, as well, and much more numerous. Some years they are so brilliant!

  7. Beth Cawein says:

    Newly retired, with time not spent in my west Tennessee garden on my hands, I found your blog in May. And have been devouring it like the delicious treat it is. I have followed as many links as possible to read earlier posts. So, just wanted to say thanks for continuing to place links to earlier posts.

    Welcome Beth! That is the perfect way to spend your retirement, hands in the dirt. I hope you notice the list of older blog posts on the sidebar near the top. I change some of those from time to time, to reflect the seasonal chores. I appreciate your reading those old posts, I like to read them too!

  8. Like other visitors and viewers, your photos have given me renewed interest in placing a sourwood in our garden. Thanks for the inspiration!

    Thanks, Shenandoah. I hope you are able to plant a sourwood, it should be much more widely grown and many folks haven’t even heard of this fine native.

  9. sharon says:

    great tree now you need a hive for that great honey!!

    I do, Sharon! Having bees is something that I always have admired. We certainly already have plenty of bees.

  10. Oh, I’m so not ready for fall color, although I have even noticed a crispness about the air in the early mornings. The sourwood leaves are lovely shade though, even if they do herald the ending of summer. I agree with Sharon. Bees to make sourwood honey! I don’t know if you have such a thing in your area, but some beekeepers often just are looking for a property to host a hive. In exchange you get a portion of the honey harvest, (and your flowers get pollinated) but the beekeeper does all the work of keeping bees, and harvesting honey.

    Thanks CV! I need to look around for someone who wants to work out such a deal. There are many farms around us with those signs for honey and eggs. I think someone in my neighborhood might even have bees, we certainly have loads of honeybees, no shortage here at all. Summer being over is not a source for sadness here where heat and drought rules. Fall is glorious and the leaves are beautiful. I love crisp air!

  11. Lovely foliage color.Odd that I haven’t seen this tree around Chicago.

    I have never even seen one here in Tennessee. They are not widely planted in landscapes, and they should be. We first noticed them along the interstate in Western North Carolina.

  12. Sandy & Richard says:

    My friend in Canada sent me your website, I live in Evandale Tasmania Australia.
    Where we are now moving into Spring, and seeing all the fresh spring colours appear, daffodils, jonquils, and grape hyacinths. The Weeping Cherry is tentatively showing us her flowers. The green fuse is lit ! (thank you Dylan Thomas) We both throughly enjoy your descriptions of your garden. We have never heard of the Sour Wood tree. Look forward to your next communication.

    Hi Sandy, thanks for visiting and welcome. Thanks to your friend in Canada! I appreciate your readership. I have written over 800 posts since 2007. You are welcome to scroll back and read some, or even all of them!

  13. I envy you having a Sourwood in the garden. Great tree!!

    Thanks Janet. We are lucky to have found the sourwood, they should be much more available, a great tree, yes.

  14. Rose says:

    If ever there were an award for most creative blog titles, you would win hands-down, Frances:) A lovely tree–I wish I could visit your garden again in the autumn!

    Thanks, Rose. I appreciate your support! You are welcome to come visit me and my garden anytime of year!

  15. Cyndi says:

    I just love this post and went looking for them yesterday, not to find one, however we do have to go to Asheville for the first time ever to see a Doctor for my husband. I will definitely be looking for them and I do have some sourwood honey that is delicious! I did hear the bees are finding less from the farmer’s market here and my sassafrass is the first tree changing here. I love them all around our property.
    Thanks Frances!
    Smiles, Cyndi

    Smiles back to you, Cyndi. I hope your visit to Asheville goes well for your husband, AND you are able to find a sourwood tree. Sassafrass are beauties, too.

  16. patientgardener says:

    My witch hazel and sorbus have just started to turn and with the days getting shorter autumn certainly feels like it is just around the corner.

    Hi Helen, thanks for stopping by. Things are beginning to change here, and finally the nights are cooler. Fall is coming soon.

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