Consider the list of little-known actors who were suddenly seen in a minor role, then zoomed to stardom: Lana Turner, Ava Gardner, Brad Pitt, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, Julia Roberts — the list is long.
Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum) has been playing bit parts for years. The time for it to enjoy the starring garden role that it deserves is long, long overdue.
This lovable, beautiful, undemanding American native is the perfect garden-scale tree, the perfect four-season focal point for any small-city garden, the perfect showstopper for autumn color, winter interest,spring bloom, and unfurling foliage and summer leaves. In a word — Perfect!
So where’s its Academy Award? I nominate it here and now.
Delicately scaled, Sourwood grows slowly and steadily to a height of 15 to 30 feet. There are examples of this long-lived tree in its native southeastern United States that have grown to 50 feet. It has a gentle, rounded crown due to evenly spaced and slightly pendulous branches. In winter the defoliated silhouette is striking. The leaves are narrow, 5 to 8-inches long, tinted bronze in early spring when its tassel-like blooms appear. Come summer the leaves turn a rich green. In fall the foliage explodes in color: orange, scarlet, blackish-purple. All colors can be seen on the same tree at the same time, hanging on over a long period. Few trees have a more splendid autumn show.
At home in our loose, acidic soil, happiest when our winters give it a prolonged cold snap and a perpetual supply of rain water, this tree is a natural for the tiny urban gardens of Madison Park.
Look for Oxydendrum arboreum in full seasonal color this month in nurseries. Get it in the ground soon after purchase. Water it well. Like Japanese Maples, do not plant anything under it that requires cultivation, and keep the area under the tree, out to the drip line, grass and weed free.
A gentle sprinkling of a complete granular fertilizer (12-12-12 or the like) will assure steady growth and robust leaf color and flower production. I always recommend feeding lightly by the holidays: Valentine’s Day, April Fools Day, Memorial Day and The Fourth of July. Wet the soil under the tree. Scatter the plant food sparingly and water it in. Better too little than too much. Snip back the occasional errant branch.
Beyond that, there’s only one thing left to do. Enjoy this tree for a lifetime. And, with or without an Oscar, you’ll know very well that you are living with a star.