What is Sourwood Honey?

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One of the most popular varieties of honey produced in my region is Sourwood Honey. This is one of those extra special products that my beehive produce in some year – in limited quantities. With such an interesting name – many questions are asked: What is Sourwood Honey? Does it taste sour? Where does it come from? What is so special about it?

Sourwood trees in bloom visited by bees to produce honey image.

In order to make this contender for the best honey in the world– nectar is gathered from Sourwood tree blooms. Not every year is a big year for nectar but when it happens – it is a happy season for the beekeeper.  

Sourwood Honey-A Regional Favorite

Sourwood honey is wildly popular in the Appalachian region. It is such a local favorite that it is the only kind some locals will eat. In fact, we like it so well that we do not have a lot to sell.

Regional honeys are those that are produce primarily in one area or region of the country. Perhaps, the plants that provide the nectar only grow well or produce nectar in that locality.  

Frond of white sourwood tree blooms image.

Where do the Trees Grow?

The Sourwood tree (oxydendron arboretum) is native to the Appalachian Mountains of the United States.

It’s native range includes North Georgia, the mountains of North Carolina (Black Mountain Region too) and the upper elevations of South Carolina.

It can be found growing along the mountain sides as an understory tree. Nestled below the towering oaks, maples and tulip poplars it is barely noticeable when not in bloom.

Honey bee collecting sourwood nectar from blooms image.

The bark is scaley and the trunk is small and spindly. On average, they reach heights of up to 30 feet. But, they can reach greater heights where growing conditions are best.  

However, when the white bell shaped flowers open, the tree is easy to recognize. The mountainsides shine with the white flowers in the tree tops.

The higher elevations of Appalachia boasts more nectar producing sourwood blooms than the foothills. In the fall, the leaves come alive with color.

It is not unusual to see yellow, red and purple leaves on a single tree. An excellent ornamental, Sourwood trees love acid soil.

I am lucky to have some Sourwood trees on my small farm. They make a beautiful display in June at a time when not much else is blooming. 

You will often see them growing on ridges above streams. I chose to save my trees years before I became a beekeeper. I’m so glad I did. In July, it is common to hear a nice buzz if you stand below the tree.

How Sourwood Honey is Produced

Most raw honey is a mixture of the nectar from hundreds of blooming plants. How do beekeepers manage bees to get a mono-floral honey such as Sourwood?

Mono-floral means it is predominately made from one type of nectar. The answer is in how the boxes of the hives are managed by the beekeeper.

The Langstroth hive is most commonly used for honey production. It consists of stacked boxes with the bees storing food and raising young the boxes at the bottom of the stack.

On top, beekeepers add “additional boxes” that will hold the excess honey – not needed by the bees for Winter.

Taking honey from bees is not a bad thing when the hives are managed responsibly. But, we shouldn’t be greedy – leave the bees enough.

When the Sourwood trees around my bee yard start to bloom, (beginning of the honey flow) I will remove any partially filled honey supers and put empty boxes in their place. 

During the several weeks of the bloom, honey produced in those boxes will be Sourwood. Very little other nectar sources are available-so the foraging honey bees visit sourwood blooms.

Therefore, when the honey supers filled during this period will have Sourwood honey inside. This assumes that the weather was good and the flowers full of nectar.

A frame of ripe sourwood honey being uncapped for extraction.

Production Varies Year to Year

While this tree grows and blooms in areas outside the mountains, the trees do not produce enough nectar for reliable honey production.

Nectar production of Sourwood trees is linked to elevation. The higher mountain regions produce more nectar than the foothills.  

In June and July, the southern and central Appalachians come alive with white Sourwood blossoms. In South Carolina, you may find these trees blooming in the mid-state area of Columbia.

But, little Sourwood honey is produced south of Pickens, SC. (located in the northern part of the state).

Sourwood trees produce best at an altitude above 1000 ft.  At 1,100 ft above sea level, I just made it.

South Carolina Sourwood Harvest

South Carolina beekeepers in the northern most corner of the state can reap a Sourwood Honey crop. But, we do not have the elevation to produce as much nectar as the higher mountains of NC.

Nectar does not reach the bottom of the urn shaped flowers until afternoon. Bees are not lazy so they will harvest sumac nectar in the morning.

This gives South Carolina Sourwood a reddish tint most years because a bit of other sources are mixed in. However, our local Sourwood Honey does maintain the delicious flavor that we expect.

Where to Buy It – Buyer Beware

Sourwood has a short blooming season compared to some nectar sources. Each year, I hear stories of customers paying premium honey prices for clear colored honey that is NOT Sourwood.

When purchasing honey, you are at the mercy of the producer. Ask questions, educate yourself and do not be lured by prices that seem absurdly low for a premium honey.

It is not unusual to see a quart of being sold for $30 and up! We consume most of the crop locally. (Can you blame us?)

I recall a statement I read in a well-known beekeeping magazine years ago. “More Sourwood Honey is consumed than is produced each year”. Think about that for a moment.

You may find a beekeeper local to the region with some to sell. The smaller the beekeeper the better chance of getting the best tasting Sourwood Honey.

Some of them only harvest Sourwood -they don’t bother to collect the regular wildflower honey. Sourwood Honey is so prized by locals that a Sourwood Festival is held each year in Black Mountain, NC.

Is Sourwood Honey Good for You?

The health benefits of Sourwood Honey are the same as the health benefits of any raw honey.  Aside from its spectacular taste (isn’t that enough? LOL ). It’s just good!  

Honey is an excellent instant energy source for athletes. Containing minerals and anti-oxidants,  and it is a good substitute for other forms of sweeteners.

A tablespoon of honey in your morning cup of coffee adds a natural sugar source with no artificial ingredients.

If you are sick with a bad cold, hot tea sweetened with honey is a delight. The rich, buttery taste blends well with most herbal teas. It is a light flavor that does not over power the tea flavor. ( Some types of honey mask the tea flavor. )

The anti-bacterial properties of any raw honey soothes sore throats and helps with coughing. You can even use honey for cold relief.

Raw honey can be used to treat burns and wounds. And, it helps promote healing and prevent infection.

(Good information for a hiker. A small bottle of honey can be an energy source and wound treatment as well ! Perhaps make some honey sticks with it? )

But, the health benefits are not what makes Sourwood Honey great. It’s all about taste. No other honey tastes quite the same.


Is Sourwood honey rare?

Sourwood honey is not a reliable crop. Some beekeepers only experience a bountiful harvest once a decade.

Is Sourwood Honey sour?

No, not at all. This popular honey has a rich, buttery taste with a pleasing after-taste. Some say, it brings to mind a flavor of anise and spice

What is the difference between Sourwood honey and regular honey?

The difference is the nectar source used to make it (sourwood tree nectar) and the delicate light flavor compared to most regular honey.

Does a white color honey mean it is pure Sourwood?

Not always. It is normally a light amber color – lighter in color than other honey from the region.  Though in the foothills, the nectar is often mixed with a bit of sumac nectar so it is not as clear in color.

A Final Word

Conservation efforts to maintain native plant species are important to preserve this type of raw food product. Without the trees, we would have no Sourwood honey.

You will find many ways to use honey. But, most people would never “waste” Sourwood honey for a purpose that doesn’t involve eating it.

If you have never tried to real thing, I suggest that you try to find some this year. The closest flavor I have experienced is Fireweed Honey from Alaska.