All About Sourwood Honey
Updated: Jan 5
One of the most gourmet honey varieties produced in the United States, Sourwood Honey is clear as glass and has a distinct, rich flavored honey. Produced in a small section of the Southeast United States, it highly sought after for its amazing flavor.
THE SOURWOOD TREE
This tree can be grown in hardiness zones 5-9 in the continental United States. These trees can reach 30 feet tall and 20 feet wide, growing an average of 13-24 inches per year. Blooms from June to early July, with fragrant white flowers on drooping stalks that look very similar to lilies-of-the-valley. Provides great fall color, with leaves turning crimson, purplish-red and sometimes yellow in the fall. These trees can also live anywhere between 120-200 years in the right conditions.
A native tree to North America, the sourwood is one of the few endemic trees that is not found in other continents unless planted and has no related species. The name Sourwood is derived from the acrid taste of its leaves, but tea made from these leaves is widely used by mountain climbers as a thirst-quencher. Pioneers used the sap as one ingredient in a concoction used for treating fevers; the bark for chewing to soothe mouth pains; and leaf tea for treating diarrhea, indigestion and dysentery. But the best-known by-product of the Sourwood tree is the hard-to-find and extremely delicious honey that bees produce from the fragrant blossoms.
Gourmet honey is produced by the many bees that are attracted to the nectar-laden flowers. This is only true for those Sourwood Trees that are above 1000 feet in elevation, not to say that Sourwood doesn't produce nectar because they certain do. Just not in the amount large enough to make Sourwood Honey. While a large section of the Southeastern United States is the prime area for Sourwood Trees, the evaluation reduces the area for beekeepers interested in making sourwood honey to the southern half of the Appalachian Mountains, specifically Western North Carolina.
BEEKEEPERS & SOURWOOD HONEY SEASON
Once the honey flow is over in the foothills of South Carolina, it is time to prep the hives to go to the Mountains of Western North Carolina. The Sourwood Honey Season in Western North Carolina, last only about 6 weeks. It normally starts right around July 4th every year. The time it starts is about the only thing beekeepers can actually count on, since the seasons output is only good every 2-3 years. This can also be hampered by a rainy summer for the Mountain Location, a good one is always kept a secret. In addition to moving large number of honeybee hives and an agreement with the local owner for their watchful eye, the fickleness of Sourwood season and the rich, prize winning flavor command an extra a higher price. Pure sourwood honey can be clear like glass and is runnier than other honey varieties.
MOVING HONEYBEES FOR SOURWOOD
The morning of moving day for the honeybees, starts at 3:30am for the beekeeper. It is a race against the early morning sunrise. That morning the beekeepers have to ensure all of their equipment is loaded up and plug the entrances to each hive. Each hive will get strapped together with a truck strap and a piece of dense foam will be shoved into the long entrance of the hives so they can be picked up and loaded onto a trailer. Once all of the beehives have been loaded on the trailer and strapped down to prevent them from tipping over, the beekeepers loaded up any supplies and set course for their secret location. While beekeepers use screened bottom boards to ensure plugged hives can move air and keep the inside hive cool, summer temperatures can rise quickly after the sun comes up. This is why beekeepers start in the early morning hours to ensure they can get the destination before the outdoor temperature gets too high. Once they arrive, the tailer will be parked and the plugs removed, the honeybees will fill the sky in search of Sourwood Blooms.
SCOUTING FOR NEXT YEAR
There are only a couple of times during the year that Sourwood trees can be easily identified. During the bloom time, usually when beekeepers are super busy managing colonies, or during Autumn when the leaves change to a fiery red color with the old lacy flower stems. During the fall is the best time for beekeepers to scout out a new and potentially better location for next year. This is all part of the chase and excitement of sourwood for some beekeepers. While some locations are great every year, usually following a year with poor sourwood yields, the beekeepers will wonder if their current location is losing its luster. The new location scouting is also an opportunity for beekeepers to find a location that is more convenient to get to or more remote, depending on what they are trying to gain with their scouting. One of the most prized locations, allegedly, is near Black Mountain North East of Asheville, North Carolina. It is said that the area is just covered in Sourwood Trees. Having a significant saturation of Sourwood Trees, increases the potential to have a much higher percentage of Pure Sourwood Honey. It isn't just like honeybees stop working all of the other flowers.
PLANTING A SOURWOOD TREE
Even at evaluations under 1000 feet, the Sourwood Tree has 3 season beauty and is good for all pollinators. While they can be challenging to grow in landscaping environments, they are bee-utiful trees. There are only a few tree nurseries that even carry them, our favorite is Rock Bridges Trees. Not only do they ship Sourwood Trees, they also have an entire section of Trees for Bees on their website. We have purchased and planted Sourwood Trees from them and the experience was fantastic. Be sure to check out the Raw Sourwood Honey and order yourself a real treat!