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.
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.
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.)