The Smokies in Your Backyard: Sourwood and Redbud

The Smokies in Your Backyard: Sourwood and Redbud

Steve Kemp and Janet Rock

By Steve Kemp and Janet Rock

Since early spring is an acceptable time to plant trees, we continue this Smokies LIVE column with some trees native to the Great Smoky Mountains that should thrive around your home if you reside in the Southeast, central Appalachians, and parts of the Midwest. Remember to procure them from a reputable nursery that specializes in flora native to your region. All plants are protected by federal law in Great Smoky Mountains National Park except for berries and mushrooms harvested for personal consumption.

"Sourwood
Sourwood photo by iNaturalist user Ashwin Srinivasan

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)

This medium-sized tree is truly underrated for home landscaping. Its arching trunk provides an appealing contrast to the straighter boles on one’s property. and its long leaves turn a splendid crimson in early fall. Famously, the sourwood’s large clusters of creamy-white flowers that bloom in July are attractive and provide the raw material for sourwood honey, the most revered of all Appalachian ambrosias.

Because sourwood trees inhabit a rather restricted range and are rarely abundant, quantities of sourwood honey are always restricted. It is generally only available in the fall and in the South and Southern Appalachian region.

Sourwoods do well in full sun or partial shade on drier sites where they mix well with mountain laurel, azaleas, and pines. Soils should be on the acidic side. Since they rarely exceed 50 feet in height and 18 inches in diameter, they do not pose as great of threat to buildings that larger trees do. Sourwoods grow relatively slowly and may live for 100 years or longer.

Redbud Tree in Boom by GSMA

Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

There is no more welcome color in early spring than the bright magenta of the redbud’s flowers. The conspicuous blooms appear in late March or early April depending on the severity of the previous winter. These flowers are edible and appear before most deciduous trees—including the redbud itself—unfurl their leaves. Redbud leaves are an attractive valentine shape and turn yellow in autumn.

The redbud ranges more widely than the sourwood, reaching as far west as eastern Texas and the southern Midwest, south to central Florida and north to Pennsylvania. It does well in full sun or partial shade and tolerates moist to dry sites. It grows at a moderate rate and rarely reaches a height of more than 30 feet. A 50-year-old redbud would be a long-lived tree. In the Smokies, redbuds prefer limestone-based habitats, but the species seems to tolerate a variety of soils that are not too acidic.

Steve Kemp worked as a seasonal ranger in multiple national parks and spent 30 years as a writer, editor, and publisher with GSMA. He is a frequent contributor to Smokies Life and is the author of several books, most notably Who Pooped in the ParkJanet Rock worked with the U.S. Forest Service before embarking on her 28-year career with GSMNP as the park’s official botanist. She co-authored the popular field guide Wildflowers of the Smokies and has contributed to several scientific articles on park plants.

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