Sour candies. Fermented vegetables like sauerkraut. Guavas and rhubarb. Even though no one eats a regular diet heavily reliant on sour foods, most people understand that they can be delicious when paired with the right ingredients (sauerkraut and sausages, rhubarb and strawberries), or even when eaten by themselves.
For that reason, you would think that fans of sour or bitter foods would be willing to pay extremely high prices for often hard-to-find sourwood honey.
You’d be right about the prices; in some years (like last year), the honey is so rare that honey connoisseurs have to pay $30 or more per jar if they can even find one. But you’d be wrong about who would be most interested in finding sourwood honey – because it definitely doesn’t have a sour taste. It has a distinctively sweet taste, and it is absolutely delicious.
The Scarcity of Sourwood Honey
The major reason it’s often difficult to find sourwood honey? Scarcity, since the source of this honey is primarily found only in mountainous areas of the southeastern United States. The gorgeous sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboretum), which is sometimes called the Lily-of-the-Valley tree or the Sorrel tree, is native to the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains of Tennessee, Virginia, South Carolina, western North Carolina, and north Georgia. Making things worse, a lot of that land has been deforested over the years by coal mining companies. The sourwood sometimes grows in parts of the Midwest and on the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts as well, but not in large enough numbers for much honey to be produced.
The tree is definitely beautiful. When full-grown it stands some 30 feet tall, with a narrow trunk and dark green leaves that turn brilliant red and orange in the fall; the bell-shaped, white sourwood blossoms grow in clusters known as “angel fingers,” and produce fruit shaped like small urns in the fall. The name of the tree derives from its leaves, which indeed smell and taste sour. On the other hand, sourwood blossoms smell quite sweet, and the tree’s nectar is even sweeter.
The scarcity of the honey is also due to the fact that the sourwood tree blooms for only about one month per summer, from late June to late July. When the weather is good, the tree produces so much nectar that it literally drips from the blossoms. When it’s a cold season with not much rain, though, there’s not a lot of nectar for honeybees to collect or beekeepers to sell as honey.
Those beekeepers also have to be careful, because trees like sumac and the tulip poplar grow in the same areas and blossom just before or after the sourwood. Beehives have to be placed perfectly and cleaned out just before the sourwood blooming season begins, and the honey has to be collected from honeycombs as soon as the season is over. Otherwise, the sourwood nectar will be diluted with other types of honey, and can’t be sold as monofloral (derived from a single plant or tree) honey.
So while many honey lovers praise sourwood as the best-tasting honey they’ve ever had, and it’s twice won awards at prestigious competitions as the “best honey in the world,” it’s very often in short supply.
The best place to taste and buy this amazing honey is actually in Black Mountain, North Carolina, which hosts some 30,000 people at its annual Sourwood Festival each August. That’s also the time of year you’re also likely to find pure sourwood honey for sale at bee farms, farm stands and small shops from Asheville, North Carolina to Clarkesville, Georgia.
The Unique Taste of Sourwood Honey, and How to Use It
When you open a jar of sourwood honey, you know you’ve found something special. It has a very light to light amber color (a bit darker if sumac or poplar nectar has been mixed in), the aroma is a combination of cinnamon, cloves and anise, and the texture is liquid and smooth (sourwood rarely crystallizes until it’s been stored for a while).
Then you taste it, and you revel in the long-lasting, mild, sweet taste that’s almost like a buttery, slightly-spicy caramel. There’s a long-lasting but not overpowering, pleasant aftertaste that some say is reminiscent of gingerbread. Sourwood honey is even sweeter than wildflower honey and orange blossom honey, and can perhaps best be compared to the also sweet and also rare Tupelo honey.
The distinctive honey flavor of sourwood is perfect for Southern cooking and foods. Honey barbeque sauce, chicken and waffles (or pancakes) drenched in honey, honey cornbread and honey muffins are just a few of the ways you can use this treat. Or you can simply drizzle it over breads, cheeses, cereal, granola, yogurt or nearly any other type of food – and enjoy.
Health Benefits of Sourwood Honey
All varieties of honey have been found to have health benefits, as long as they’re raw honey. The pollen and propolis secreted by honeybees are what causes honey to slowly produce hydrogen peroxide in the body and provide impressive antioxidant, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory benefits. But when honey is ultra-filtered and pasteurized in order to improve its color and last longer on the shelf without crystallizing, those benefits are lost. And in addition to being better for you, raw, unfiltered sourwood honey simply tastes better.
In the 2020’s, no one needs to be told about the benefits of antioxidants; they fight dangerous free radicals which can damage cells throughout the body, and are believed to prevent serious illnesses like heart disease and cancer. Conventional wisdom says that darker honeys contain more antioxidants than lighter ones, and that’s generally true. Sourwood honey, however, is the exception, with greater antioxidant power than even buckwheat or manuka honey. It works well as a wound treatment, too.
Sourwood honey is also a good choice to battle colds and sore throats, not only because it provides the same antibacterial benefits as other honeys, but because it tastes delicious when mixed into herbal tea – or when you simply eat a spoonful of the honey straight from the jar.