Rebecca G. Aguilar | Writer

SCBWI

What is that thing? | Sweetgum

Posted by Rebecca G. Aguilar, M.Ed. on July 6, 2015

Sweetgum Ball

Watch your step. This seed ball dropped from an American Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) in my backyard. The species name sugar-coats the pain I experience walking over them with bare feet. Good idea to grow Sweetgum as a landscape tree?

Surprisingly, this native tree of the southeastern United States has some pretty spectacular pluses.

The fragrant Sweetgums will scrub the smoke particulates left in the air after a weekend of 4th of July fireworks. The trees not only provide shade for my house, but water released from the Sweetgums turns to vapor, cooling the atmosphere in the process. The Sweetgums also absorb water at their roots and prevent storm drainage backup near my property.

Sweetgum’s namesake resin, collected by gashing the bark, can be chewed as gum and used to make soap, cosmetics, perfumes, adhesives and lacquers. Sweetgum also produces an important hardwood timber for crates, furniture, cabinets, trim and plywood.

Sweetgum Bark

The gray, furrowed bark, which prompts the Alligator Tree alias, has astringent properties for treating minor skin abrasions, insect bites or fungal infections. An infusion of Sweetgum’s dry bark has also been known to relieve diarrhea.

The 5-point star leaves turn yellow, orange, purple then dark red in a beautiful display of fall foliage by October. A green leaf from the Sweetgum serves as a natural wipe for cleaning off dirt or grime. Crushed Sweetgum leaves release anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory compounds for healing wounds.

Seeds of the green Sweetgum ball contain shikimic acid, an active ingredient for making anti-flu medicine. Native Americans made teas and extracts from the crushed green seeds for congestion and coughs. The aromatic green seeds were also chewed for indigestion.

After the Sweetgum balls dry out, they become the spiky spheres that test barefoot resolve in the backyard. But nutritious seeds inside the brown husks attract hungry cardinals, blue jays and white-winged doves. And the Sweetgums in the backyard provide nesting habitat for the very same seed hunters.

White-winged doves coo-cooing in the Sweetgum trees… lovely sounds this time of year.

References

Liquidambar styraciflua. Texas Native Plants Database. Texas A&M Horticulture.

American Sweetgum. Arbor Day Foundation Tree Guide.

Liquidambar styraciflua. Silvics of North America. USDA Forest Service.

Category: What is that thing?

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