Sweetgum(Liquidambar styraciflua L.), also known as American sweet gum, red gum, bilsted, star-leaved gum, alligator-tree is a large deciduous hard-wood, perennial member of the witch-hazel family(Hamamelidaceae) found all over the place in East Texas, where I resided the past few months, and is readily identifiable by its dark green, star-shaped leaves. You can find it in moist or wet woods, along streambanks, in tidal swamps, old fields, clearings or in low, swampy bottomlands. It is a North America native and can be found in the south-east, east-central, and south-central. They grow 30-40 meters in height and spread 15-20 meters.
Its leaves resemble maple leaves, but are alternate instead of opposite. They are simple and palmately lobed, containing 5-7 points. Their flowers are monoecious, female, on a slender stalk. They are terminated by a half inch diameter globose head. The head has 2-beaker ovaries subtended by small scales. Its fruit is a brown, spiny burr. This is where you find the seeds. Make sure you don’t step on them barefooted! They are pendulous little balls, about 3-4 centimeters. It is here that you find several small seeds of about 1 centimeter. They are winged at one end. You can find the seeds inside beak-like capsules
The tree was used by various Native American groups(Koasati, Rappahannock, Choctaw, Cherokee) for various purposes. As the name implies, the tree’s aromatic balsamic sap(called styrax) can be used as chewing gum as well as for treating gastrointestinal upset. The sap has also been used as a perfume. You simply wound the tree and wait a week until the sap hardens, at which point you can collect the sap and chew. You can also made tea from its bark(which has been used as a sedative) and its fruit. You can mix animal talloe with its plant for cuts, wounds, ulcers, bruises and sores. Simply boil until the scum rises to the top and mix it with Obolaria virginica.
Its seeds can be eaten for their protein, and are a common foodsource of birds, squirrels, and chipmunks. Beavers use the lumber for constructing dams. The sustainable living enthusiast is encouraged to take advantage of this free food source. Its culinary and nutritional value is minimal and it is more valued as a source of lumber than vitamins or minerals. You can use its wood to make veneer, inferior trim, wooden ware, furniture, plywood, slack cooperage, lumber, pulpwood, fuel, pulpwood or railroad ties.
Actively growing leaves are fragrant when crushed. They are palmate in shape with five to seven lobes and saw-toothed margins. Glossy-green in summer, the leaves turn bright yellow to deep red in the fall. The undersides of the leaves are pale green with a coating of fine white hairs. The small, greenish inconspicuous flowers have no true petals. .
Kingdom Plantae – Plants
Subkingdom Tracheobionta – Vascular plants
Superdivision Spermatophyta – Seed plants
Division Magnoliophyta – Flowering plants
Class Magnoliopsida – Dicotyledons
Family Hamamelidaceae – Witch-hazel family
Genus Liquidambar L. – sweetgum P
Species Liquidambar styraciflua L. – sweetgum P Liquidambar styraciflua L.