Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Speaking of Trees: The Sweet Gum

The sweet gum tree 'liquidambar styraciflua' is easily recognized
by its perfect star-shaped leaves, 
and sometimes it is called the star-leaved gum for that reason.
When it grows in wet, acidic soil, it can soar 100 feet high.
It is said to be an ancient tree, first appearing millions of years ago.

And all that is very nice to know, but not particularly unique for a tree.
One compelling reason the sweet gum is noteworthy is its fruit.
Yet, one would think a tree with a name like "sweet gum"
would have the most sugary, sweet, slightly sticky, delectable fruit.

That hummingbirds, butterflies, and honey bees
would eagerly head to its branches each spring
to drink themselves silly on its dulcet flowers.

That jam makers and pie bakers would mark their calendars 
and ready themselves for the sweet gum fruit's peak season.
But no.

The fruits of the sweet gum tree are hard, spiny, and brown.
They fall without apology, peppering the ground with little balls resembling 
the medieval mace, entwining themselves in dog fur,
smothering the grass, and pelting visitors
who pause too long under the tree's branches.
Walking barefoot near a sweet gum tree is a test of valor.

  The star-leaved sweet gum is important
for more than just its annoying rain;
it has a long history as a medicinal plant.
It is the source of an acid with antiviral qualities;
the only other known source of the acid is the star anise.
Star-leaved gum tree, star anise spice.
 It captures one's imagination.

No comments: