One of the prettiest forest understory trees around, the sourwood, Oxydendrum arboreum, a.k.a. lily-of-the-valley tree, will be a spot of beauty in your yard all four seasons.
It grows slowly to 20 to 30 feet tall, with a narrow and irregular pyramidal shape. It needs acid soil, moist and well-drained, so if azaleas or blueberries grow well (they’re in the same family), a sourwood will too. Some compost would be appreciated, as well as a deep mulch out to the drip line to keep the roots cool.
It’s better to get it as a smaller tree, as older trees may not transplant well. It will flower and get fall color better in full sun, but as a forest understory tree, it will grow in bright shade as well. It naturally grows anywhere from well-drained bottomlands to dry hillsides, so you know it’s not picky about moisture once established, but it doesn’t like to dry out completely. It doesn’t have many pest or disease problems, but like any living thing, if it’s stressed, it is more susceptible to problems.
The sourwood is one of few summer-blooming trees — blooming from June to early July, with fragrant white flowers on drooping stalks that look very similar to lilies-of-the-valley. The small, bell-shaped, creamy white, and fragrant flowers are borne in 4 to 10 inch-long, drooping clusters. The flower clusters are at the end of the branches and resemble tassels.
The flowers are attractive to honeybees, and sourwood honey is considered a delicacy. When it is in full bloom, it is beautiful. The leaves are pretty, too — they have finely-toothed edges and are elongated, 3 to 8 inches long. In fall it turns a breathtaking deep red or scarlet.
If you can make sure your soil is acid enough — our soil here averages slightly acid, and you can get soil acidifiers at any hardware store — you will be rewarded with one of the most beautiful of our medium-sized native trees. Try one today!