Great Design Plant: Sourwood Brings Fiery Fall Color

Feb - 20

Great Design Plant: Sourwood Brings Fiery Fall Color

Sourwood is a outstanding yet underutilized tree for its smaller landscape. The layers of midgreen foliage resemble a froth of petticoats, especially when studded with drooping clusters of white flowers in July. The interest does not end there — that the seedpods stay on the tree throughout winter, dance from bare branches in the breeze.

However, the best reason for including a sourwood in your garden needs to be the magnificent autumn foliage. Fiery colors of red and orange start to show in September and continue until a hard November freeze here in the Pacific Northwest.

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Botanical name: Oxydendrum arboreum
Common name: Sourwood
Resource: Native to the eastern United States
Where it will grow: Hardy to -20 degrees Fahrenheit (USDA zones 5 to 9; locate your zone)
Water requirement: Typical; fairly drought tolerant once established
moderate requirement: Full sun or light shade
Mature size: 25 feet tall and 15 feet wide, but slow growing
Advantages and tolerances: Hummingbird favorite; pest and disease free; low care
Seasonal interest: Spring to fall
When to plant: Fall to spring


Distinguishing attributes:
A small tree with a large impactFlowers appear in July, and the seed heads stay until springOutstanding fall color in vibrant colors of scarletAdapts to many soil types

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How to use it. In a small garden this tree could stand alone as a specimen, but give careful consideration to its planting partners.

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Echo the outstanding autumn color by underplanting sourwood with a rich-colored shrub, like the dwarf Midnight Wine weigela (Weigela florida‘Midnight Wine’, zones 4 to 8),possibly adding a warm-colored coleus as revealed here for annual interest.


For contrast, a sweep of soft yellowish Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, zones 5 to 9) would be beautiful.

In larger landscapes you may want to back this small tree with the tall gold Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica ‘Sekkan-sugi’, zones 6 to 9), that will provide a four-season scale and backdrop.

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Planting notes. Plant sourwood in spring, autumn or winter (if the ground isn’t frozen). Add bonemeal to the planting hole to encourage root growth, and keep it well watered for the first two years

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