Sourwood honey inspires one sweet festival

Barbara Hootman

Sourwood honey is so popular here that you would think it was discovered in the Western North Carolina mountains.  That isn’t true, but it's popularity and the people it draws the area are what's behind this weekend's Sourwood Festival.

All day Saturday and nearly all day Sunday, downtown Black Mountain will be full of kids riding rides, people listening to free music, shoppers visiting the several vendors and hungry folks visiting the many food booths. Amid all that will be Edd Buchanan, a Black Mountain, fourth-generation beekeeper who has been producing sourwood and other honey nearly all his life. 

Buchanan learned to tend bees as a child on the family farm.  He became the first in his family to run a pollination business, hiring out some 200 hives to area orchards to pollinate fruit trees.

Edd Buchanan doesn't keep nearly as many bees as he used to, but the Black Mountain beekeeper still has hives throughout Western North Carolina

“Without bees, we won’t have gardens filled with vegetables, orchards and farms,” Buchanan said. “I traded an old lawnmower for my first bee hive. I produce all kinds of honey, but the sourwood is the most popular. We have some this year, but not much.

"Sourwood like all honey production depends on the weather. The sourwood tree starts to bloom in late June and goes through July.  The afternoon thunderstorms have prevented the bees from working the blossoms, because bees can’t swim.”

Dean Ledbetter of the Broad River community has been keeping bees and making honey for more than 50 years.

Locally produced honey sold at the Sourwood Festival, especially the sourwood kind, is especially precious in many people's estimation.

“Sourwood honey is spotty this year,” Ledbetter said.  “Some beekeepers have it and some don’t.  It is a bit of a mystery because we saw the best bloom on the (sourwood) trees that we’ve seen in years.  The bees were strong and worked the blooms for nectar.  A good flow of nectar can depend on elevation and weather.  The spotty production of sourwood honey may be due to the afternoon thunderstorms that we’ve been having.  Sourwood nectar flows best at the hottest part of the day, and that is when the storms come.  The bees don’t work the blossoms after a storm.

“There will be some Sourwood honey for sale, but it isn’t a banner year.  I also keep bees to pollinate my garden and for my neighbors’ gardens.  We keep learning about bees and how important they are all the time.”

Aromatic and extra light to light amber in color, sourwood honey has an unforgettable taste. It is so prized that it can command as much as $18-$20 a quart, nearly twice what other honey sells for.

When sourwood honey is limited, Buchanan offers his wildflower blend of honey.  It comes from clover and basswood tree blooms.

Local beekeeper Bob Plemmons doesn’t sell honey locally "because I ship most all my bees make to my daughter in Connecticut who has a restaurant and she uses it,” he said.  “She even lists Black Mountain as the source of her honey on her menus.  I make enough for family and friends to eat and send the rest to her.”

Sourwood trees weren’t too popular with early settlers because of the way their trunks grew crooked.  The trees, native to the continent, grow from southern Pennsylvania to northwest Florida.  The Cherokees used the young wood for arrow shafts and for medicinal uses to treat ulcers and lung disease.  The settlers used the tree for tools, medicine - and honey.

Related to rhododendron, fetterbush and trailing arbutus, the sourwood is usually the only member of the family to be classified as a tree. The trees are still plentiful in WNC.

You never know what you'll find at Black Mountain's ever-popular Sourwood Festival.

One sweet festival

What: Sourwood Festival

When: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Aug. 13, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Aug. 14

Where: Downtown Black Mountain