December 1, 2022
Sourwood trees with their unusual growth habits stagger and reel across First Landing State Park


By Mary Reid Barrow

Sourwood trees grow every which way, crisscrossing each other and even bridging some trails at First Landing State Park.

Oddly many sourwoods have branches that grow straight up off a cockeyed trunk.

Over the years, I never paid those gangly trees much mind.  When I thought about them at all, I thought they were just trees that had a bad childhood and had gone awry.

Not so!  Sourwood trees, in their drunken stances across the park, are perfectly normal. They are just sourwoods growing the way sourwoods are supposed to grow.

Tree expert Allen Carter led a tree walk for LRNow along the Osmanthus Trail in the park recently and clued us all into crazy sourwoods and their unusual growth habits.   Once we learned about this little understory tree, we were surprised to see how many of them bridged the trail as we walked.

Sourwoods rarely grow more than 30 feet tall—maybe “long” is a more descriptive word for their almost horizontal trunks.  Sourwoods stagger and reel across the southern half of Virginia and are particularly abundant in the Appalachian Mountains further south.

Allen thinks sourwoods must have particularly long tap roots that help them stay erect in some of their more impossible postures.

Sourwoods have another odd feature.  Look at one closely, maybe even give it a hug, and you can tell, or feel that the trunk is oblong, not round. That’s because the grayish-brown bark is thicker on the underside of the tree than on the top, Allen said.

He speculates that the heavier bark on the bottom is there to help support the heavier weight of the tree’s horizontal carriage.

The sourwood tree got its name because its long oval leaves taste sour, but that certainly doesn’t apply to its sweet honey!

Which brings us to another unusual trait of the sourwood:  the awkward looking tree produces dainty lily of the valley-like blooms in summer that bees and pollinators love, Allen said.

This brings us to part two of the sourwood’s unusual tale.  Stay tuned next summer when we meet the blooms and find out how the honey tastes!


Reach Mary Reid:


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