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What is Sourwood Honey?

Different varieties of honey are produced in each region based on available plant nectar. Often the name of the honey clearly defines the nectar source. But some types of varietal honey are special. What is Sourwood Honey? Does it taste sour? Where does it come from? In fact, this special honey is a favorite in the region where it is produced.

Frond of white sourwood tree blooms image.

Sourwood Honey-A Regional Favorite

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

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Most of this special product is consumed right here in our region. It is so good not much is left to offer for sale.

Bees make sourwood honey from plant nectar just like any other type of honey. But, in order to make this special honey, the nectar is gathered from Sourwood tree blooms.   

The tree (Sourwood tree -oxydendron arboretum) is native to the Appalachian Mountains of the United States. It can be found growing will along the mountain sides as an understory tree.

picture of a sourwood tree in bloom

Where do Sourwood Trees Grow?

It’s native range includes North Georgia, the mountains of North Carolina (Black Mountain Region too) and the upper elevations of South Carolina. But, you may see it blooming in other regions as well.

The sourwood tree is barely noticeable when not in bloom. You will find it growing along our mountainsides and foothills.  When the white bell shaped flowers open, the tree is easy to recognized.

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. 

The higher elevations of Appalachia boasts more nectar producing sourwood blooms than the foothills. These trees are usually small under-story trees.  They can reach greater heights where growing conditions are best.  

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.

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.

Honey bee collecting sourwood nectar from blooms image.

How Sourwood Honey is Produced

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

A standard hive consists of boxes used by the bees to raise young and store food.  On top of the standard hive, I add “honey supers” that will hold excess honey.

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

During the several weeks of the bloom, honey produced is Sourwood. Very little other nectar sources are available so the bees work the bloom.

Honey Production Varies Year to Year

While this tree grows and blooms in areas outside the Southeast, these trees do not produce enough nectar for 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.

Beekeepers Hoping for a Good 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.

Our local Sourwood Honey does maintain the delicious flavor that we expect.

Each year, I hear stories of customers paying large 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.

Is Sourwood Honey Sour?

Does Sourwood Honey taste sour? No, not at all.  All honey flavor varies by nectar source. This popular honey has a rich, buttery taste with a pleasing after-taste. 

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.

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 Sourwood 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.  After cleaning the wound, apply raw honey and bandage loosely.  Honey 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 ! )

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

Final Thoughts on Sourwood Honey

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.

This honey is in such demand that it commands a premium price.  It is not unusual to see a quart of Sourwood Honey going for $20 and up!  We consume most of the crop locally. (Can you blame us?)

When buying this honey, be sure to read reviews. You may find a beekeeper local to the region with Sourwood Honey. The smaller the beekeeper the better chance of getting the best tasting Sourwood Honey.

Some small beekeepers in the region only produce Sourwood – they don’t bother to collect the other. Sourwood Honey is so prized by locals that a Sourwood Festival is held each year in Black Mountain, NC.

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  1. robert carden says:

    very interested in sourwood honey. just got some bees and have a few sourwood trees. also popular and maple and a few gum.

  2. Its a possibility but it doesnt produce every year – every where. You must be above a certain elevation for the trees to produce nectar.

  3. Grady Stanley says:

    I’m from the part of Florida that produces Tupelo honey, which was my favorite until I tasted Sourwood honey a few years ago. I’ve been told that Sourwood honey, like Tupelo, will not crystallize. Is that correct? I have never had Sourwood honey last long enough to find out for myself. What is the percentage of fructose and glucose in Sourwood honey?

  4. The sugar percentage can vary but Sourwood honey is like Tupelo and rarely crystalizes.

  5. Shawn Lake says:

    Do you believe a sourwood tree would thrive and produce nectar in Union County (NC) ? I have a property there with blueberries and a few hives.
    Next county east of Mecklenberg.
    Now I am a beekeeper down in Miami ,where I work, and our bees forage black mangrove, palms and sea grape. There is also an area which has a tree called a buttonwood which
    produces a buttery taste like you describe.

  6. We bought some sourwood honey from a little produce stand on 441 south of Cherokee last week. My Husband left it in our truck all this week. ? We live in Florida and I am concerned about the heat. Do you think it’s still good? There is a white line I’m assuming from where the quart jar layer on it’s side. Thank you, Melissa

  7. My parents brought me some back from Tennessee. I have yet to try it, but will be doing so really soon after reading more about it. I am an amateur mazer (mead maker), and may even use the honey to produce a batch of mead! That is, if I can keep enough of it off of my biscuits!

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