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Native plant of the month: Liquidambar styraciflua (Sweetgum)


This month I decided to take my mind off prairie plants by looking up to the trees and experiencing the onset of fall color in Louisiana. Sweetgum is one of the best trees around for beautiful fall foliage. The palmate leaves range in color variation from deep red to purple, to orange and yellow. It grows in a variety of soils, from wet to dry and grows in association with pines, maple, elm and oaks. The strong hardwood is used in veneer, plywood, cabinets and furniture. The average height is 60 feet by 30 feet wide with a pyramidal form, but often grows larger. Spring flowers are borne in clusters and attract hummingbirds and other nectar loving birds. It is a host plant for many species of butterflies and moths including the luna moth. The prickly fruit, often called gumballs can be a nuisance in a manicured lawn, but the ecological value is worth it! Inside each gumball are 30-50 nutritious seeds about 1/4 to 1/3 inch long. They are prized food for many songbirds including goldfinch, red-winged blackbird, Carolina chickadee, dark-eyed, junco, chipping sparrow, and more as well as gamebirds, such as mourning dove, quail, mallards and wild turkeys.


According the the USGS plant database the Acadians of south Louisiana called this tree "copal," which was adapted from the Aztec term for resin. The name is said to have been bestowed by La Salle himself (Holmes 1990). The Indians, and early settlers, are said to have used it as chewing gum. Acadians used the gumballs to decorate Christmas trees.

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