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Arbo Paths: The hidden secrets of red maple, goldenrod, and wax myrtle

It may take a bit more syrup from red maples than sugar maples, but you can still make maple syrup from them! Photo by Pat Drackett

It may take a bit more syrup from red maples than sugar maples, but you can still make maple syrup from them!
Photo by Pat Drackett

Few plants may seem as uninteresting as the goldenrod, so common to our autumn fields. You may not give a second glance to a red maple tree or a wax myrtle shrub. But pull up your chair and sit a spell, and I guarantee I can relate a few facts about these plants that will not only help you see them in a different light, but might even inspire you to tell someone else or inspire you to research.

Take the poor maligned goldenrod, for example. Hopefully by now, you’ve come across an article de-bunking this native plant’s reputation for causing allergy symptoms. Because goldenrod (Solidago spp.) blooms at the same time as ragweed, it’s often blamed for being the trigger of hay fever experienced in the fall. But don’t let those fields of goldenrod scare you, because these plants are insect-pollinated, not wind-pollinated like ragweed (Ambrosia spp.). Take a spin on the Internet to find photos of both of these herbaceous plants, and you will breathe easy next time you pass a goldenrod field such as the one on the west side of Interstate 59 between Picayune Exits 4 and 6.

I remember being astonished the first time I heard the story of how Henry Ford, who had a winter home next to Thomas Edison in Ft. Myers, Florida, asked Mr. Edison to help him find a native source of rubber for his automobile tires, because of the high cost of tropical latex. Edison researched many potential plant species, and finally chose a species of goldenrod with a high rubber content, around eight percent. Through breeding experiments, Edison developed a much taller plant, around twelve feet tall, with a higher rubber content, around twelve percent. This goldenrod, Solidago edisoniana, was named after him. To show his appreciation, Henry Ford gave Thomas Edison a Model T with tires made from goldenrod rubber.

Unfortunately, the latex content in goldenrod was never high enough to make it a realistic source of rubber, and later it was determined to be much more cost-effect to manufacture synthetic tires from petroleum products. Search the Web to find photos of goldenrod latex and tires, and of Thomas Edison standing next to the super-tall species he developed. For another interesting story, research Henry Ford’s biological “hemp car” debuted in1941, made from soybeans, cotton, flax, hemp, goldenrod, and other natural materials. Find a photo of Henry Ford hitting the trunk with an ax – it bounced off!

Most are familiar with the red maple (Acer rubrum). It is a common but attractive tree that is easy to grow and thrives in a variety of site conditions, from full sun to shade, moist or dry sites. But did you know that maple syrup can also be made from the sap of red maple trees, not just the well-known northern sugar maple (Acer saccharum)? It takes about 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to make a gallon of maple syrup compared to about 60 gallons of red maple sap.

Southern wax myrtle (Morella cerifera) is a short-lived native evergreen shrub or small tree having waxy berries. These were boiled by early settlers to make “bayberry” candles. Northern wax myrtle (Morella pensylvanica) berries have a higher wax content and larger berries, so they are much better suited for candle-making. Search the Web for a photo of these plants, their berries, and the fragrant candles made from the wax. Many visitors to the Arboretum have told stories of how their elders used crushed wax myrtle branches under their porches to keep fleas away from the family dogs.

Like the examples given in this column, things are not always as they may seem. Make plans to come experience the Arboretum, and what may seem at first glance to appear just like your backyard is in reality a whole host of plants with stories waiting to be told. A perfect opportunity for this is our fall field walk to be held on Saturday, November 1 from 10 to 11 a.m. Admission is $5, and members are admitted for free.

FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION: If you need a refresher course to identify the three plants discussed in this column, visit the Crosby Arboretum’s Native Plant Database on the website’s home page, orwww.SoutheasternFlora.com. Then, enjoy reading more in depth about their stories, such as how rubber was extracted from goldenrod by Thomas Edison.

By Patricia Drackett