All About Sourwood Honey
Sourwood honey is a very popular, although rare honey produced in the Eastern United States, particularly in North Georgia, Western Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Other areas may advertise Sourwood honey, but you should confirm the source and make sure that it is not mixed with other types on honey. The only area with sufficient Sourwood trees to produce honey commercially is the lower Appalachian Mountains.
Sourwood honey is produced from the Sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboretum) or as casually referred, the Lily of the Valley tree. The Sourwood is a perennial tree that grows to a maximum height of 20 feet in 20 years and 35 feet at maturity (according to the USDA). There is only one species of Sourwood and as far as trees go, it has a relatively short lifespan of 80 years. The Sourwood has a rounded top with drooping branches. The leaves are spirally arranged with small serrated edges. Their leaves are dark green during the summer, but turn to a beautiful red in the fall.
Sourwoods have no value as timber, but are used for landscaping purposes. According to Bernheim, Native Americans used Sourwood leaves and bark for a variety of medicinal uses as well as the wood for sled runners, cooking tools and firewood.
The Sourwood is a late blooming (late June to August) tree with beautiful white, fragrant, bell-shaped flowers. Their primary source of pollination is the honey bee. Each year the total Sourwood honey crop is limited due to the short duration of the blooming period, the finite availability of Sourwood trees and varying weather conditions. In any given year a shortage of rain or lower than normal temperatures can impact the amount of Sourwood honey that is available for that season.
Further impacting the amount of Sourwood honey available in any crop year is the loss of habitat. Like many areas throughout the country, Sourwood trees continue to be lost to development. Recognizing the need to increase the Sourwood tree population and the opportunity to establish a position in the Sourwood honey market, researches from Eastern Kentucky University are now collaborating with coal mining companies through a land reclamation pilot project by planting more Sourwood trees. Last year more than 10,000 Sourwood and Basswood trees were planted in one of these projects.
Due to the relatively short bloom season, the beekeeper has a small window of time to locate their bees with the blooming Sourwoods. Moving the bees into the Sourwood bloom area too soon runs the risk of the bees accessing other nectar sources. If the beekeeper waits too long, then he runs the risk of not having sufficient time for the bees to collect enough Sourwood nectar to produce the honey. Because of all the factors affecting a good Sourwood honey crop it is not unlike the premium wines from European vineyards where one only hopes to gain access to a single jar.
Sourwood honey is extra-light to light amber in color and extremely aromatic, with a distinctive rich, sweet honey flavor of anise and spice. It is prized by honey lovers and is used with breakfast bread items such as homemade biscuits, in barbecue sauces, dressings, ciders and more. This is a premium honey and commands a higher price in regions where it is produced.