A Quintessential Tree

A frustration of mine is customers who continually buy the same tree or shrub over and over again simply because they have heard the name. Dogwood, cherry, magnolia and redbud certainly have their place in the world, but what about a tree that can offer you something in every season? Dictionary.com defines quintessential as “of or relating to the most perfect embodiment of something.” Certainly Sourwood, Oxydendrum arboreum falls into this category as it offers the gardener excitement in every season.

A native tree found alongside stream beds and in woodlands on the East coast; Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana have their fair share too. Oxydendrum also goes by such common names as Sorrel Tree and Lily-of-the-Valley Tree. Aptly named Sourwood, it is the leaves of Oxydendrum that have a sour taste. And while the leaves of this tree can be chewed to help alleviate a dry-feeling mouth, it is advised not to swallow them, according to Wikipedia. Having said this, Wikipedia also cites the leaves as being a laxative. This tree has so many attributes it boggles my mind that it is not more popular or widely known. This deciduous beauty typically grows 25-35 feet in cultivation and 50-60 feet tall in the wild. Finely-toothed, glossy green leaves look similar to peach and the fall color of these canoe-shaped leaves can have red, maroon, yellow and orange dancing through them. Only to be rivaled by the likes of Blackgum, Parrotia and Chinese Pistache, other beauties not in the mainstream, Sorrel Tree is on the short list for autumnal wonders. The overall outline of this tree is a pyramid or narrow oval, making it a perfect choice for smaller landscape lots. Oxydendrum’s branches droop towards the ground, depicting a subtle, graceful form.

Lily-of-the-Valley Tree is its other common name because its waxy, white flowers bloom on slender, dropping panicles reminiscent of the herbaceous perennial groundcover. Flowers that have a slight fragrance are borne in terminal panicles of second racemes in our early summer months here in New Jersey. The winter months are not to be outdone by its gorgeous flowers and sensational fall color. Gray, fissured bark that is deeply ridged will also captivate the novice gardener, appreciating its recognizable rectangular patterns. It is this “blocky pattern” that is reminiscent of Persimmon trees. And I can’t forget its olive green twigs that turn red or the fact that Sourwood honey is a highly prized and sought after product for those in the know.
Oxydendrum grow well in full sun, however it does appreciate a part sun to part shade location, shielded from extreme sun. Tolerant of acidic, clay soil types, Lily-of-the-Valley Tree has no serious insect or disease problems. The lone species of the genus, Sorrell Tree makes an outstanding specimen as well as its contribution to naturalized settings.

As with many trees there are a few cultivars to be on the lookout for. ‘Albomarginatum’ I have only seen on the Internet, however a Sorrell Tree with white leaf margins and white marbling from Louisiana Nursery is pretty to look at. ‘Chaemeleon’ has an upright conical habitat, maintaining exciting fall color marking from Polly Hill Arboretum, Martha’s Vineyard. Finally, ‘Mt. Charm’, touted for its symmetrical habit and reportedly earlier fall color markings, was introduced by the West Virginia Association of Nurserymen. Now before you get all goose-bumpily and start looking for these exciting varieties, understand that just finding Oxydendrum arboreum may be a tall task in itself.

Sourwood is a bit tricky for nurserymen to grow and produce, hence its rarer occurrence at the garden center level. And its price tag is usually north of the likes of dogwood and redbud, but well worth the investment. Working with smaller, container grown trees or well-balanced B&B (balled and burlapped) specimens usually ensures its success when introducing it to your landscape. “Hardy” to zone 5, adolescent trees are usually misshapen, but with time develop into a most handsome pyramidal tree. Given all that Oxydendrum has to offer I am stupefied as to why this tree isn’t more “mainstream.” Outstanding fall color, interesting bark, flowers that engulf the foliage in the early summer, a native with little to no issues and a tree you can make prized honey from and juice from its blooms (Sourwood jelly) … what else could you want?