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Sweetgum (What Time is it in Nature)

January 31, 2015

This week’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Jacqueline Hogg, intern for the Museum’s Naturalist Center.  Jacqueline is a student at Salem College and is double majoring in Environmental Studies Conservation Ecology and Music Vocal Performance.  She thinks the Museum’s vast array of knowledge, research, and opportunities are a perfect fit for her interests and is interning at the Museum to expand those interests.  Thanks Jacqueline!

Sweetgum is a beautiful deciduous tree that is a member of the Hamamelidaceae, or Witch-Hazel family. Look out for them in the Southeastern Coastal Plain and Piedmont areas, east-central and south-central parts of the US, and if you’re adventurous in your travels, they can be found in southern Mexico and Central America. These hardwoods are extremely tolerant and can flourish in a variety of conditions. They grow best in areas with moist, nutrient soils, such as tidal swamps, stream banks, and low swampy bottomland areas where their root system is not limited. These magnificent trees can grow over 100 feet and reach 3-5 feet in diameter!

Sweetgum in winter

You may be wondering how to distinguish this species from other trees you may see. They have rough, deeply furrowed grayish-brown bark in maturity:

Sweetgum bark

… and a rusty-red bark in adolescence.  The star-shaped leaves may look similar to maple leaves:

Sweetgum leaf

… but they’re arranged alternately instead of opposite: each leaf arises at a different point on the stem instead of directly across from each other. The leaves have five to seven lobes and saw-toothed margins. If you look closely at a tree in the summer, you may see greenish flowers and later you will see dangling fruit that appears as a green spiny ball containing 40-60 seeds that turns dark brown as it ages:

sweetgum ball

Multiple bird species eat the seeds, including Purple Finches, Goldfinches, Mallards, Bobwhite Quails, Carolina Chickadees, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Towhees, White-throated Sparrows, and Carolina Wrens, as well as squirrels and chipmunks. These trees display glossy-green leaves in the summer months, but in the fall they add to the bright colors with bright yellow and red displays from the tree-tops.

These trees aren’t just magnificent on the outside. Liquidambar styraciflua is more commonly known as the Sweetgum tree. Where does it get this delicious name? Under its bark flows a sweet balsamic sap that has a long history of special uses by humans. The Cherokee, Choctaw, Koasati, Rappahannock, and other Native American tribes had several uses for it. When the sap of the tree is exposed, it hardens into a fragrant gum that served as chewing gum and the fruit and bark were used for tea. Sweetgum also had several medicinal uses. The hardened sap was used to treat canine distemper and a salve was made by mixing the plant with animal tallow. The plant was used to dress cuts and bruises, skin sores were treated by boiling the roots, and a “drawing plaster” was made from the gum. The sap was used to reduce fevers, and both the sap and inner bark were used to treat diarrhea and dysentery. The bark was even used as a sedative.

Sweetgum is a hardy species that is valued in several modern markets as well. Their aromatic sap is used as an ingredient in both medicine and perfume. Its timber also provides pulpwood, veneer, lumber, plywood, slack cooperage, railroad ties, and fuel.

There are many fine examples of Sweetgums on the Prairie Ridge grounds! On your next visit, take a trip down the Forest Trail. Look for large groups of spiky brown “gumballs” on the ground and look up. You’ll still see many gumballs hanging from the high limbs of the Sweetgums, which makes them easy to tell apart from many of the other trees on the Forest Trail in winter. These trees will start to grow leaf buds in preparation for spring soon. Keep watching them on your visits to Prairie Ridge and you’ll be able to watch them transition from winter to spring!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

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