Archived Mountain Voices

Sourwood honey is a favorite among connoisseurs

mtnvoicesNow is sourwood time. From late June into mid-August sourwood trees will be flowering throughout Western North Carolina, from the lowest elevations to almost 5,000 feet. Here, then, more or less at random, are some notes from my sourwood file:

• Nectar from the urn-shaped flowers is a favorite of honeybees. Stand under a sourwood in full bloom and you will hear their “summer song.” And the sourwood honey they produce is the favorite of honey lovers worldwide. 

• In Highlands Botanical Garden: A Naturalist’s Garden, WCU biologist James T. Costa — director of the Highlands Biological Station — notes that: “Bees know a good thing when they see it; ‘flower constancy’ describes the behavior of nectar-foraging bees focused on a single flower type, when profitable. Bees recruit one another to good food finds, their waggle-dances indicating not only the location but also the perceived quality of the nectar source [which] is why beekeepers can reliably identify the honey produced by their bees as being derived from a particular species.”  

• Local beekeepers disagree on the ideal weather conditions for a sourwood honey flow. (Which isn’t surprising since they tend to have longstanding differences of opinion about many aspects of their intricate craft.) Most do agree that too much rain a year ago resulted in a poor honey flow.

• You can easily identify this graceful member of our flora by its long, greenish, elliptical leaves and white, drooping tassels (“tags”) that remind some of lily-of-the-valley.  The soft green leaves with their distinctively patterned veins are especially attractive. 

• The common name sourwood is derived from the acrid taste of the leaves.

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• Pioneer settlers used the wood for tool handles. They also observed that the trunk of a mature sourwood more often than not has a natural bend about mid-way to two-thirds of the way above the ground, exactly the shape required for the runners on their ox- or mule-drawn sleds after the bend had sectioned and halved.  

• I have known about this use of sectioned sourwood for sled runners for years. But I could never figure out the reason for or cause of this natural bend. Every time I went out in the field with a botanist or naturalist, I would ask about that natural bend. Finally, while leading a field trip with Murray Evans, now retired from the biology department at the University of Tennessee, where he was the resident taxonomist, I received the answer: “George, you’ve got to remember that sourwood is a member of the heath family, which is otherwise made up of shrubs and similar low-growing plants. Sourwood ‘decided’ to be a tree, but it has retained some of the characteristic growth patterns of a shrub. See how the limbs tend to arch downward like a shrub. And that natural bend in the trunk is also shrub-like.”

•  In autumn, the brilliant red foliage of the sourwood tree contrasts with the showy dangling whitish fruit clusters. This aspect, combined with its graceful shape and showy flowers, makes it a striking ornamental. In Growing and Propagating Showy Native Woody Plants, (1992) WNC horticulture specialist Dick Bir observed that “In the landscape, few small trees can compete with the seasonal appeal of sourwood ... I suggest planting them where they can be seen from a distance rather than expecting sourwood to be the focus of your patio planting ... Sites at sunny woodland edges or in full sun are its favorites.”

“Why I’d say sourwood is a pretty-looking honey of an extra-light to light-amber color that’s exceptionally aromatic with a subtle anise-like flavor and a sharp or tangy aftertaste. It can’t be beat.” 

— Sourwood Honey Connoisseur

George Ellison wrote the biographical introductions for the reissues of two Appalachian classics: Horace Kephart’s Our Southern Highlanders and James Mooney’s History, Myths, and Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees. In June 2005, a selection of his Back Then columns was published by The History Press in Charleston as Mountain Passages: Natural and Cultural History of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Readers can contact him at P.O. Box 1262, Bryson City, N.C., 28713, or at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..      

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