Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Fireworks in the Tree Tops

     I love to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July. It is the epitome of summer to me to walk out on a hot July evening among throngs of people, find a place in the grass near the lake where the Town shoots off the fireworks and then wait and watch. You get to spend a pleasant evening among friends and to enjoy a lovely show.   The walk home on a greenway through the woods with flashlights to light the way is pretty special too.

Lovely bursts of 'fireworks' crown a sourwood tree on the edge of the woods.

     One tree that always reminds me of the Fourth fireworks is the Sourwood. First of all, it tends to be in bloom around this time of year - beginning in mid June and often lasting until the end of July. Plus, to me the flowers themselves look like fireworks. The trees have long white strings of bell-shaped flowers coming out in a grouping like fingers on your hand. Each clump of flower strings resemble the pretty white clusters of shooting stars that we see on the night of the Fourth. With time they gradually turn from a snow white to a gray as the flowers complete their blooming and the seed is formed, but the firework groupings remain on the tree well into fall.
     The tree itself is a lovely small tree that is native to much of the Eastern and Southeastern United States. It is named Sourwood because of the oxalic acid that is formed in its leaves. This causes the leaves to have a bitter taste. The leaves may be sour tasting, but they are a favorite of a number of the moth species normally known as orange fall webworms. These moths will often seek out a sourwood to lay their eggs and the tents can begin appearing with tiny worms as early as mid summer.
     The flowers have a lovely scent and are attractive to bees. In a good year with plenty of rain and therefore plenty of flowering, bees seek out the trees. Sourwood honey is considered to be one of the best honeys in the world and is much prized. It is a very light colored honey with a heady scent. In addition, the juice from the flowers can be used to make jelly.

August leaves with seed pods still in place
     Sourwood likes full sun to partial shade and in the wild is usually found either as an understory tree in open hardwood stands or as an edge tree - such as the edge of a woodland, along a road or near a stream in a bottomland.  It is the edge location that is usually the most noteworthy.  The tree becomes a mass of brilliant red in the fall but will often begin turning color as early as August and will retain its red leaves for several months.  Along bottomland areas, the tree is always found above the high water level and is therefore a great natural indicator of potential flood levels and also of soils that are well drained.  Sourwood will not tolerate saturated soils.
     The tree reaches fifty feet in height and twenty feet in crown diameter in good conditions.  When found in the open, it has a pyramidal shape, but in a wooded setting, the shape tends to be more open and irrigular.  Often the trunk is crocked and leaning and the foliage is fairly dense on the main crown of the tree.
     Sourwood makes a wonderful specimen tree, especially when it is placed on the edge of a grouping of trees.  It does not tolerate a great deal of foot traffic and is not a 'lawn tree', but it does provide a good deal of interest and color when used on the edge of a bedded and thus protected area.  In these areas, the tree will be hardier if not fertilized with a chemical fertilizer.  Use organic materials such as compost instead.  It is a somewhat more temperamental tree to transplant and therefore is not always easy to find in a nursery, but it is well worth the search.  The other option is to protect what might come up at the edge of any wooded stands that you have.  You might be pleasantly surprised to find a sourwood growing amid the other edge trees.
     Look to sourwood to help set the mood for summer and the Fourth of July with its lovely flowers, and then look for the added bonus of long and brilliant late summer and fall color.  In the winter, enjoy its interesting and twisted shape and gray bark, and then in the spring watch for the red tinted leaves to come out.  It is a lovely understory and edge tree for all seasons of the year.

No comments:

Post a Comment