Sourwood Honey Guide (Benefits + Images + Research)

Written On: by Theo The Beekeeper

The best part about honey is that no two batches taste the same; plant species play a fundamental role in determining what type of honey we end up with, its flavor, etc. So let’s explore the award-winning Sourwood honey and find out what makes it so great.

Sourwood honey is highly prized for its delightful flavor and deep amber coloration. Harvested from the sourwood tree by honey bees, this honey is endemic to the eastern parts of the USA, particularly in mountainous areas. This honey is a three-time world champion of “best honey.”

Like most kinds of honey, Sourwood honey tastes delicious and is highly sought after. But where does this wonder honey come from, and what are some of its distinguishing features? How is Sourwood honey used? What are Sourwood honey’s benefits, and most importantly, how does it compare to other types of honey?

Sourwood Honey’s Origin, Properties, Uses, And Facts

There are roughly  320 different varieties of honey in the USA. These kinds of honey differ in their color, taste, and odor. Bees produce different honey varieties because of several factors:

  • The species of plant that bees collect the nectar from
  • The season that the bees collect said nectar
  • The microorganisms present in the beehive
  • Honey combines sugars, amino acids, antioxidants, iron, minerals, vitamins, and zinc. Depending on what ratio you find these “ingredients” in will also determine the honey’s flavor, color, and smell.

With so much diversity, it’s challenging to think that one honey could stand out so much from the rest. Below, we investigate Sourwood honey’s origins, characteristics, benefits, and drawbacks.

The Origins Of Sourwood Honey

two honey jars
Hexagonal honey jars mockup. Two different colors.

One of the factors which make Sourwood honey particularly unique is its origin. Sourwood honey is derived from the nectar of the sourwood tree’s flowers.

The Sourwood tree is endemic to the eastern mountain corridors of the United States, which means that Sourwood honey is restricted to these regions.

The most significant Sourwood honey-producing states are:

  • The western regions of North Carolina (North Carolina is the predominant source)
  • The eastern areas of Tennessee
  • The northern reaches of Georgia

The common driving factor behind these states producing the most significant volumes of Sourwood honey is their proximity to the Appalachian mountain range.

The Sourwood tree grows in impressive densities within the southeastern mountainous regions of the USA. The sheer volume of Sourwood trees in these areas results in certain honey bee hives feeding exclusively on this type of nectar (season dependent). This exclusivity produces monofloral honey.

There are, however, roughly 25 “honey-producing” flowering plants in North Carolina.

Facts And Features About The Sourwood Tree

Scientific name: Oxydendrum arboreum

Other names for this tree include:

  • Lily of the Valley Tree
  • Sorrel Tree

The sourwood tree is a small deciduous tree that attains 20 to 30 feet. They are relatively thin trees with between 8 and 12 inches trunk diameters. Sourwood bark is reddish-brown and significantly furrowed (vertically), and ridged.

These trees flower during early to mid-summer (June) and produce scores of beautiful, white, urn-shaped flowers. The flowers persist for roughly 3 to 4 weeks and produce fragrant odors.

Although widespread through North Carolina, these trees take 4 to 5 years of growth before their first bloom.

Which Bees Are Responsible For Sourwood Honey?

honeybee on flower
Horizontal closeup photo of a bee collecting pollen and nectar from an orange Calendula flower in Spring. Soft focus background.

The honey bee is the most significant producer of sourwood honey. Originally from Europe, these honey bees (Apis mellifera) live in hives, where they return with nectar and pollen, which they collect from surrounding flowers.

Although not native to the US, honey bees arrived on ships from Europe in 1622 and quickly naturalized to become a critical part of the ecosystem and later economy.

During the nectar collection process, honey bees add an enzyme from their saliva to the nectar. This enzyme is known as invertase, and its function is to turn nectar into honey.

Aside from bees, butterflies are also frequent visitors to Sourwood trees. Butterflies, unfortunately, don’t produce honey.

The Defining Properties Of Sourwood Honey

Sourwood honey is highly prized across the states, and not only because it is a “locally” produced item. The two distinguishing features of sourwood honey are its color and flavor. Sourwood honey is a light amber color and smells faintly of cinnamon and cloves.

Although the honey comes from the sourwood tree, Sourwood honey has a rich, buttery caramel taste, with a slight, lingering aftertaste akin to gingerbread. This honey’s taste is also aromatic and floral, with anise and other spicy undertones.

It has a smooth and syrup-like texture.

The taste is not always fixed, however, as various factors influence the specific tastes, including:

  • The timing of harvesting
  • The exact location of the trees and hive
  • The weather conditions (Sourwood trees flower less in higher rainfall and colder years)
  • The methods used in harvesting (beekeepers require precision timing to ensure polyfloral honey is not produced due to the later flowering of Sourwood trees)
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Aside from a great taste and color, raw Sourwood honey contains an array of beneficial compounds.

In one tablespoon of Sourwood honey, we receive:

  • 60 calories
  • 17grams of Carbohydrates
  • no fats or protein

Sourwood honey is high in:

  • Vitamin A, C, D, and E
  • Vitamin B compounds like thiamine, niacin, riboflavin, and pantothenic acid.
  • Calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc also occur in trace amounts.
  • Honey contains amino acids like tryptophan.

The Uses For Sourwood Honey

honey dripping into tea

Like most forms of honey, Sourwood honey is highly sought after for its taste. Sourwood honey pairs well with most things you add it to, especially in foods like cereals, biscuits, and cheese); and beverages like tea. Sourwood honey is fantastic as a natural sweetener and sugar replacement.

Honey is not limited to sweetening food. Due to enzymatic activity and other of honey’s inherent properties, people use honey for other reasons, which include:

  • An Anti-inflammatory. Some people use honey to reduce the inflammation (swelling) of a particular area.
  • An Antioxidant. Some people use honey as an immune booster, helping the body cope with ailments before they become issues. Some of the antioxidants found in honey include amino acids, carotenoid derivatives, flavonoids, organic acids, and phenolic acids.
  • An Antibacterial/antiseptic agent. People often make use of honey as an antibacterial/or antiseptic.
  • Honey is used as a natural remedy for treating coughs and burns and promoting wound healing.

The Benefits Of Sourwood Honey

The myriad of uses associated with sourwood honey is because of the multitude of benefits Sourwood (and raw honey in general) brings.

These benefits are most pronounced in raw Sourwood honey. Often, honey is put through a pasteurizing process to improve its shelf life and maintain its “smooth” texture. However, this pasteurization process removes many of the beneficial enzymes, nutrients, and vitamins found within raw honey.

While pasteurized honey is still a wonderful, healthy substitute for sugar, it is not as beneficial as raw, untreated honey.

Honey Is Beneficial In Minimizing Cardiovascular Diseases

Due to antioxidants and honey’s other properties, researchers believe that honey assists the body in reducing the likelihood of developing heart disease.

Honey contains many phenolic compounds, including acacetin, caffeic acid phenethyl ester, galanin, kaempferol, and quercetin. These compounds are noteworthy for their ability to counteract the effects of heart disease.

Honey Is Therapeutic In Alleviating Coughing

Researchers discovered that different varieties of honey assist in suppressing coughing fits, in particular for people with upper respiratory tract infections. Honey’s soothing effects are also potent in alleviating nighttime coughing, provided it is acute.

Many experts profess that honey also assists people with allergies, as it contains trace amounts of the particular pollen found locally.

Honey Prevents Diabetes

Eating healthier by removing sugar from your diet and replacing it with honey may even help reduce the chance of developing diabetes (type 2).

This type of diabetes is closely linked to the triglycerides levels found in your body. These triglycerides cause the body to resist insulin, which leads to the onset of diabetes. Honey, however, lowers these triglyceride levels in your body.

Honey Relieves Gastrointestinal Disease

Researchers believe that honey plays a crucial role in combating gastroenteritis and diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting, which are symptomatic of this type of infection. Honey reduces the duration and severity of these symptoms, facilitating quicker recovery.

Gastroenteritis is caused by bacteria or viruses infecting the stomach or intestine lining, leading to swelling.

Aside from alleviating the symptoms of these infections, honey is also believed to help the body with rehydration.

Honey also plays a greater role in the digestive system by “lining” the stomach and esophagus and preventing acid reflux from developing by reducing the likelihood for food and stomach acids to move upwards.

Honey Benefits Mental Health

Honey is attributed to assisting in several mental health issues. The beneficial mental health effects are due to a flavonoid found in honey called pinocembrin. Pinocembrin possesses antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and antimicrobial properties.

This antioxidant improves the brain chemistry (helping to regulate normal brain functioning and communication) while also providing a type of “protection” against future mental health issues developing.

Some of the mental health issues honey assist with include:

  • Anxiety and stress. Aside from overall mental health improvement, honey specifically assists in combating anxiety and reducing stress. Honey contains anxiolytics, chemicals that calm, soothe and relax your brain.
  • Depression. The monosaccharide sugars in honey are healthier than the sucrose found in regular sugar. Consuming regular sugar increases stress and anxiety (leading to depression), while the easy-to-digest sugar in honey reduces these issues. Honey also helps to reduce oxidative stress in the brain.
  • Convulsions. Honey contains gluconate, which is believed to help prevent convulsions and seizures. This property, coupled with the anti-dementia properties of honey, makes it potent for maintaining good mental health.
  • Insomnia. Insomnia is one of many early signs of depression. Honey contains tryptophan, an amino acid that assists in the body’s production of melatonin. This hormone regulates the regular sleep-wake cycle in our bodies.
  • Memory loss and memory disorders (like Alzheimer’s disease). Aside from the antioxidants found in honey, which improve your overall brain functioning and protect your brain from cellular damage, honey also improves your body’s ability to absorb calcium.
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Calcium is vital for proper brain chemistry and functioning.

The vitamin B compounds found in honey play a pivotal role in boosting mood and metabolism.

By assisting your gut and mental health, honey helps these interlinked systems facilitate each other in staying healthy.

Honey Assists In Wound Care And Recovery

Like many other types of honey, Sourwood honey possesses antibacterial and anti-inflammatory characteristics. When using honey to dress a wound, these properties assist the body in resisting infection.

Wound healing is further expedited by the fact that honey contains natural sugars. These sugars draw water from the wounded area, which further removes bacteria from the site, allowing the body to focus on healing and less on fighting infections.

Honey assists in fighting the infection, and it also increases the amount of blood and oxygen the body sends to the area due to honey’s acidic pH (between 3.2 and 4.5).

A slightly acidic environment also assists in reducing the adverse effects of protease (these enzymes impede wound recovery by disintegrating amino acids)

Honey is especially effective in treating burns.

Honey Acts As An Energy Booster

A further benefit for those who consume honey is that when the vitamin B and carbohydrates in the honey combine, they create an energy boost. So honey helps your brain function better, and it gives you the energy to “get up and go.”

The Drawbacks Of Sourwood Honey

Although sourwood honey (and many other variants of raw honey) have ample benefits, there are several drawbacks associated with honey and its utilization.

Honey Might Cause An Allergic Reaction

Although many argue that honey assists with allergies, honey may make matters worse. Honey is a combination of many “ingredients,” Bee pollen is one (bee pollen is the ball of pollen that honey bees collect and take back to the hive as a food source. It contains carbohydrates and lipids,  minerals, protein, and vitamins).

Although rare, if someone is allergic to bee pollen, there could be lethal consequences.

There are milder reactions to bee pollen as well, and some of the symptoms include:

  • The person may have difficulty breathing (the chest closes up similarly to someone who has asthma).
  • They may become dizzy and disorientated.
  • They might become nauseous and start vomiting.
  • The individual may become weak or faint.
  • Another sign is that the individual may begin to perspire profusely.
  • They may develop arrhythmia (and irregular heartbeat).
  • If you use honey to treat a wound, the application site may begin to burn.

Honey Is Not Safe For Infants Under The Age Of One

You would be well-advised not to do so, as tempting as it might be, to pop a honey-coated pacifier into an infant’s mouth. As wonderful as honey is in helping adults through various ailments, feeding honey to a baby could cause infant botulism, a condition of the gastrointestinal tract.

This gastrointestinal condition is not from the honey itself but what the honey might carry within it, namely Clostridium botulinum spores. These bacteria multiply within the infant and produce botulinum toxins under low-oxygen conditions.

These toxins are lethal as they block nerve functioning, which leads to paralysis and death.

Honey Might Affect Blood Sugar Levels

Although honey is a healthier sugar replacement, honey is primarily composed of monosaccharide sugars.

When used in excess and with other unhealthier sugars, honey can cause a sugar level spike. This additional sugar is especially true for processed honey.

Some manufacturers add sugar to the honey to further sweeten it.

Therefore, care is required to make sure you consume honey in moderation and not in excess.

Honey also lacks the beneficial fibers that fruit has, making it slightly less healthy than those sources of nutrition.

Sourwood Honey Is Expensive

Sourwood honey is generally in high demand. Due to its limited distribution and short flowering season, sourwood honey probably won’t be in excess in any given year; it is in short supply

 more often than not.

Due to the highly prized taste, Sourwood honey is often more expensive than other types of honey of the same volume.

Additional Sourwood Honey Facts

Some other interesting information regarding Sourwood honey includes:

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Sourwood Honey’s Popularity In The States

Sourwood honey is North Carolina’s most popular honey, but the prestige does not end there.

Each year during the Good Food Awards, artisans, beekeepers, and “foodies” alike gather together to judge which variety of food regions best. Sourwood honey won the prize for best honey for five years running.

The honey is so popular that there is a Sourwood festival held every August in Black Mountain, North Carolina, in its honor. The festival includes music, dances, face paints, arts and crafts, and hundreds of vendors.

Sourwood Honey’s Popularity Globally

Sourwood honey’s popularity is not limited to the states. During the World Honey Show, a competition sponsored by the World Beekeeping Foundation, Sourwood honey wooed the judges globally. It took first prize and the title of “Best Honey in the World” on three occasions.

This competition puts the best honey from around the globe together, so it needs to be all that for Sourwood honey to win.

The Average Cost Of Sourwood Honey

Due to its popularity and relatively short supply, Sourwood honey can fetch a relatively higher price per bottle. Depending on the volume, sourwood honey ranges roughly from $7.00 to $31.00.

The average price of Sourwood honey is:

  • 12 oz. – $14.75
  • 1 lb. – $13 to $18
  • Quart – $29.00

Where To Purchase Sourwood Honey

Due to Sourwood being North Carolina’s most popular type of honey, many sellers exist throughout the state and in surrounding states. Some of these retail points include:

How Do Beekeepers Ensure That It’s Monofloral Sourwood Honey?

Beekeeping is quite a science. When creating the “perfect” batch of Sourwood honey, there are many variables to consider.

It comes down to knowing when the Sourwood trees will flower and preparing for it.

Many beekeepers move their hives to areas dominated by Sourwood trees just before the trees begin flowering in June.

Beekeepers take “clean hives,” so the honey the bees collect is not a mixture of late spring flowers and Sourwood.

It takes careful planning, experience, and a fair amount of luck, but many professional beekeepers facilitate their bees into producing monofloral Sourwood honey.

Some beekeepers don’t mind mixing Sourwood and other flowers to create polyfloral honey. Either way works. It depends on what your goal is.

Threats To Sourwood Honey Production

The Sourwood tree is an indigenous tree to the Appalachian and nearby mountains. They are a relatively hardy species, but they suffer from pollution, and several other issues, including:

  • Diseases. Although the Sourwood tree itself does not have any particular diseases or pests that it suffers from, the honey bee hives are at risk of Tracheal and Varroa mites.
  • The Africanized Honey Bee. When they brought African honey bees to the Americas, no one expected the new arrivals to be as aggressive and dominant as they are. These bees are renowned for chasing other, less aggressive bees from an area, killing their queens, and taking over their hives. This species replacement impedes commercial honey production, as the European honey bee is preferable.
  • Land usages And Clearing Trees. Urbanization and agriculture are the hardest-hitting impacts on bee and sourwood populations. When we clear sections of indigenous vegetation to make way for our needs, not only do we kill specific trees, but we transform the environment, making it difficult for the Sourwood tree to grow. Fewer trees mean less nectar and, therefore, less Sourwood honey.

How Does Sourwood Honey Differ From Other Honey?

During a study conducted in 2013, researchers compared Sourwood, Gelam, Longan, and Rubber tree honey to Manuka honey.

Their findings indicated that Sourwood has the highest concentrations of phenolics (580.03 mg/kg) and flavonoids (156.82 mg/kg). These compounds are fundamentally antioxidants, and elevated levels mean that, while honey provides some tremendous benefits, raw Sourwood honey is even better for you.

Sourwood honey also had the highest color intensity on the test.

The most prominent factor that separated Sourwood honey from others and won its awards is its unique, brilliant taste.

Conclusion

Of the roughly  320 varieties of honey in the world, Sourwood honey ranks as one of the best. This highly prized honey is popularized by its unique buttery caramel and spices flavors and its light amber coloration. Aside from great tasting honey, Sourwood honey is endemic to the Appalachian mountain area, and it has some of the most significant antioxidant levels found in honey. The only downsides to Sourwood honey are the relatively limited supply and the price you pay to purchase it.

Author

Theo The Beekeeper

When I was a kid, my dad used to keep bees around the small farm we had, and I absolutely loved helping him. In the past few years, we’ve picked up the hobby again, and I’ve been doing a lot more research. This website is the accumulation of things I’ve learned along the way! You can learn more about my journey and the resources I’ve developed on my about page.

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