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September 2009 cover image hunting dog

Flora Fact: Sweetgum

They can reach towering heights and produce surprising fall color.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

Step barefooted on a spiked seed ball dropped from an American sweetgum, and you’re sure to yelp. For that reason, some people despise the tree. Not Randy Scott, a retired project manager who advocates planting more of the species around his neighborhood in The Woodlands.

“Sweetgums are hidden jewels,” he enthuses. “Nobody really notices, but they have absolutely beautiful little green blooms in the spring. I also like how the green color of their star-shaped leaves contrasts against the darker green of our pines.”

Best of all, in the autumn sweetgums blaze into brilliant hues of burgundy, orange and gold.

Liquidambar styraciflua — the only member of the sweetgum family that’s native to North America — inhabits moist bottomlands of East Texas and is favored as an ornamental. Conical in form, sweetgums can reach towering heights of 100 feet or more. Although fast growing, the species doesn’t produce seeds until 20 years of age or older.

When wounded, the sweetgum’s furrowed bark bleeds an amber resin, a sticky substance once chewed as gum by Native Americans and pioneers. Commercially, sweetgum hardwood is crafted into furniture, flooring, veneers and cabinetry. As for the seed balls, squirrels and chipmunks as well as more than 20 species of birds — including turkeys, doves, cardinals and yellow-bellied sapsuckers — eat their fruit.

Scott finds the barbed husks useful, too. “I work them into my sandy clay soil for aeration,” he says. “And when I do, I always wear shoes.”

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