By Patricia Drackett, Director, The Crosby Arboretum/MSU Extension Service
The Picayune Item
PICAYUNE — One of the interesting facts about sweetgum we tell tour groups at the Crosby Arboretum is that it was once used by early settlers to fashion a toothbrush. Pioneers would cut a twig from the tree and chew on it until the fibers were separated, and then use this “brush” to clean their teeth. Sweetgum is a tree that is not only easy to identify, but has a lot of great stories to tell about it. For those of you who would like to learn more about the plants found in Pearl River County, this is a good tree to start with. Just like people, if you learn some things about a plant, it’s much easier to remember. Parents will occasionally visit our public garden on a quest with their child as they attempt to fulfill the requirements of making a leaf collection for school. We have several Extension publications available in our Visitor Center on Mississippi tree species to help with this project. But when the assignment is turned in, how many of these species will stick with them through the years? The aim of a leaf collecting project is to learn new trees, but often the rush to accumulate the required number seems to be the main focus. For those who would like to learn stories about some of the trees at the Arboretum, we have created a small leaf collecting journal to help identify about a dozen species. The journal contains interesting facts, such as sweetgum being known as the “toothbrush” tree. Sweetgum is an easy tree to identify because its leaves are distinctly star-shaped, usually having 5 and sometimes 7 lobes. Another identifying feature is its tendency to have corky protrusions, or “wings” on the twigs. The leaf buds are very shiny and its crushed leaves are aromatic. Another name for sweetgum is alligator-tree, because on older trees the bark is deeply furrowed. Many different autumn hues are displayed by this tree. As sweetgum begins to show fall color, it really stands out along the area roadsides, cloaked in bright crimson and purple. And even now, along our service road there are sweetgums still holding onto leaves of dark purplish burgundy. However, on the Mississippi State University Campus in late October, sweetgum trees glowed with golden yellow leaves in contrast to the dark trunk and branches. Sweetgum is a tough and highly adaptable tree that is found on a wide variety of soils. It is a “pioneer” species often found growing in open fields. It grows best in full sun, but will tolerate light shade. Although it is somewhat drought-resistant, it does best on moist bottomland sites. In rich soils it will sometimes form dense thickets. When given ideal conditions, sweetgum will grow as much as 100 feet, developing into a beautiful specimen tree. The Latin name of the sweetgum - Liquidambar styraciflua - is easy to remember if you think of its genus name being a combination of liquid and ambar, referring to the sap of the tree. Other species of Liquidambar are found in tropical and subtropical areas, and several, including our sweetgum, are used commercially. Liquidambar resin is also called styrax, thus its Latin species name. Both our American sweetgum and other species have historically been in demand for its medicinal use as well as other uses. While most of you may not recognize sweetgum from its Latin name, you most likely will recognize it as “that tree that drops those spiny balls in the lawn that hurt to walk on barefoot”. Yes, this is the tree whose dried seed capsules have been the subject of many craft projects, especially those around Christmas-time, when they are sprayed silver and gold and incorporated into wreaths and other decorations. Sweetgum seeds are eaten by many wildlife. According to the publication “Mississippi Trees” available from the Mississippi Forestry Commission, the seeds are consumed by goldfinches, mallard ducks, bobwhite quail, Carolina chickadees, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, white-throated sparrows, towhees, Carolina wrens, squirrels, and chipmunks. Luna moth caterpillars will feast on sweetgum leaves, and ruby-throated hummingbirds will drink nectar from the flowers. The “Mississippi Trees” publication lists sweetgum as one of the most valuable commercial hardwoods in the Southeast, with regard to the volume of timber produced. The tree provides pulp, veneer and lumber, and is used in cabinetry, home interiors, boxes and utensils. All parts of the sweetgum tree were used by Native American tribes, for many purposes. The dried sap was used as chewing gum, and also to treat distemper by placing rolled up pieces into a dog’s nose. The sap was used to make a “drawing plaster” and to reduce fever. Roots, bark, and leaves were used to make teas. Currently, the aromatic sap (styrax) is used as an ingredient in both medicine and perfume. As a landscape tree, sweetgum is a favorite fast-growing tree. But take care to locate it away from structures such as walks, driveways, and foundations as the root system is extensive. Its beautiful fall color makes it an attractive specimen tree. Would you like to learn more about birds and birdwatching? Mark your calendar to attend our “Introduction to Birding” program on Saturday, January 12 from 10:00 to 11:00 a.m. Our fifth annual Forge Day takes place on Saturday, January 26, featuring metalworking demonstrations by area blacksmiths and knifemakers from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Those who would like to try their hand at the forge may do so (a waiver is required). Paul Lebatard, a member of the Gulf Coast Custom Knifemakers club, will be sharpening knives for free at this event. This is a great opportunity to bring in those dull kitchen knives! For more information, visit our website at www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu or call the Arboretum office at 601-799-2311. We are located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59).