Tree of the Month: Sweetgum

TIM PURTELL PHOTOS | Manhanset sweetgum tree.

TIM PURTELL PHOTOS | Manhanset sweetgum tree.

Latin Name: Liquidambar styraciflua

Locations: Three sweetgums stand tall at the edge of the Library parking lot. Four other trees, planted by Friends of Trees, can be found along Manhanset Road by Bonnie Lane. A sturdy specimen grows on the grounds of Union Chapel.  

Sweetgum leaves

Sweetgum leaves

Tree stats: Sweetgum naturally ranges from Massachusetts to northern Florida and west to Missouri, Louisiana, and east Texas. It also occurs in Central America and Panama. They can grow to 100 feet high with a pyramidal shape up to 50 feet wide at the base. The big leaves are distinctively star-shaped with five to seven points. In the fall the rich green turns into a dazzling range of colors — red, orange, purple, and yellow — sometimes all at the same time. The tree’s Sputnik-like fruits dangle from the branches like ominous ornaments. Shiny and green in

Sweetgum, early fruit

Sweetgum, early fruit

the summer, they become brown, hard, and skeletal in the fall as the seeds are dispersed. Look for them on the ground around the Library trees.

There’s gold in them thar trees: Like the sugar maple, the sweetgum releases sap when its bark is punctured. The tree’s Latin name, Liquidambar, describes this sap as liquid amber, a substance that for centuries has had multiple uses. In ancient Mexico it was mixed with tobacco to create a relaxing concoction. The conquistador Hernán Cortés was among the first Europeans to sample its pleasures in a ceremonial meeting with the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II. Native Americans favored the resin as chewing gum and for medicinal purposes. In the 20th century, the sap was still cultivated commercially. In a 1930 newspaper ad, the Dudley Sweet Gum Company from Tennessee was offering “$1.50 per pound for Sweet Gum.” They were seeking 25,000 pounds of sap and specified that it had to be clean without “any dirt or bark in it.”

Sweetgum leaves in fall.

Sweetgum leaves in fall.

Sweetgum power: Sweetgum’s sap, wood and fruit continue to be useful. The tree’s sap is being tested for potential anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, and anti-fungal properties. Its wood is valued for cabinetry, paneling, and musical instruments and online, gardeners rave about spreading the dried fruit around garden borders to keep out snails and slugs. One site also suggests making a creative wreath out of the prickly fruit. Just don’t sit on it!

Tim Purtell

President, Shelter Island Friends of Trees

[email protected]

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