Friday, June 04, 2010

American Hardwoods: Gum

The American Sweetgum Tree is easily recognizable with it's 5-pointed star leaves and spiked fruit. The pointy leaves look alot like maple, but the Sweetgum leaves are glossy and leathery. In the fall, the foliage becomes orange, red, or purple.

Called 'Liquidambar' this tree has a most unusual appearance of the bark, twigs and branches. The bark attaches itself to the twigs and branches in plates edgewise (instead of laterally) and the leafless branch starts to look like a reptile - earning it's nickname 'Alligator wood'

The funny orbs of fruit have also earned a litany of names: space bug, monkey balls, bir ball, gumball, cukoo bir, and sticky ball. Consisting of about 60 connected capsules which each have a pair of spikes, the woody spheres are mostly filled with abortive seeds that resemble sawdust.

First appearing in 1651, F. Hernandez described the fragrant gum as liquid amber. The gum resin is similiar to a turpentine but with no medicinal properties. It was long used in France as a perfume for gloves and was also used for smoking at the court of Mexican Emperors.

Sweetgum is one of the most common southern hardwoods in North America. It's a popular ornamental tree in appreciation of it's brilliant fall colors. The usefulness of Sweetgum is realized in lumber, veneer, plywood, railroad ties, fuel and pulpwood.

Next week we'll discover the Hackberry tree in our series American Hardwoods on Edge of the Wildwood.

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