Sourwood Tree (Oxydendrum arboreum)

Height: Usually 30 to 50 feet; often exhibits a strong leaning growth habit

Evergreen/Deciduous: Deciduous  

Lifespan: Up to 200 years in ideal locations  

Fall Foliage: Beautiful orange to red; one of the best-looking trees of the season

Range: Essentially the southern Appalachian Mountains, extending relatively far into the coastal plain of Alabama, Mississippi, and North Carolina.  

Typical Habitat: Most common on the lower, slightly damp slopes of the piedmont, but it’s an adaptable species that can also grow on drier, more exposed sites  

The Sourwood: A Firecracker of Fall

Few trees are quite as attractive in the autumn as the sourwood. The combination of the tree’s leaning growth habit, light gray bark, and flame orange to crimson leaves make it a truly spectacular member of the forest understory. Accordingly – and because it often adapts well to residential areas – it is often planted as an ornamental or specimen tree.

The sourwood is also celebrated for the tasty honeybees make after visiting its flowers. In fact, it is likely a very important food source for native and introduced bees alike.  

Sourwood Tree Identification: Tips & Tricks

The sourwood tree is usually pretty easy to identify. The leaves – which are more elongated than many other simple, alternately arranged leaves – are rarely difficult to distinguish from other species, and the tree’s often-leaning growth habit is usually sufficient on its own to provide a positive ID.

Further, the tree’s bark and flowers are fairly distinctive, and the species’ fall foliage will often allow for quick identification at a considerable distance.  

The Sourwood: Additional Information

Need to know more about sourwood trees? Start by checking out these resources:

  • U.S. Forest Service: A comprehensive guide to the species, which includes everything from range to preferred growing sites to fire ecology.
  • North Carolina State Extension: A straightforward account of the species that features a ton of high-quality photographs.   
  • University of Georgia: A comprehensive resource on the sourwood tree, including information about taxonomy, wildlife use, and more.

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