Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Sweet Gum and Tupelo Gum
Nature Bulletin No. 366-A   January 24, 1970
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

There are two queer trees native to the southern counties of Illinois. Sweet Gum commonly called Red Gum and a member of the Witch Hazel family, now has only three close relatives but fossils of 20 extinct species have been found in western America, Europe, Siberia, Alaska and Greenland. Storax, the fragrant resinous liquid used in perfumes, is obtained from a species in Asia Minor and our tree, when its bark is cut, exudes a yellowish balsam-like gum that is a substitute for storax. The glossy aromatic star-shaped leaves, with 5 to 7 pointed lobes, are gorgeously colored in autumn -- scarlet with tints of orange, yellow and purple -- and it should be planted more often as a shade tree.

Sweet gum ranges from Connecticut to Florida and west to Missouri and eastern Texas, usually in rich bottomlands where it may occur in pure stands of very tall, very straight trees with small crowns of slender branches at the top. In pioneer days, in the Wabash Valley, there were sweet gums 5 feet in diameter that towered to a total height from 150 to 165 feet and had a clear cylindrical bole of 80 feet or more before there was a branch. The twigs have a star-shaped pith and, as they grow older, change from orange or reddish brown to gray, with peculiar corky wings. The pollen-producing flowers are compact heads along a stalk 2 or 3 inches long and, on the same tree, the female flowers are greenish balls that hang on long threadlike stems. These are followed by seed balls with a number of spiny beaked capsules each containing one or two winged seeds. These brown bur-like seed balls remind you of the sycamore.

The hard fine-grained wood is reddish brown, often beautifully patterned with darker streaks. Its texture and satiny luster make it valuable for interior trim, panels in doors and walls, furniture and cigar boxes. In addition to many other uses it is one of the chief sources of plywood, frequently sold abroad under such names as "satin walnut".

Tupelo Gum, also called Water Tupelo and Cotton Gum, grows in cypress swamps along the coasts from Virginia to Florida, west to southeastern Texas, and up the Mississippi valley to the southern tip of Illinois. Its only close relatives are the Black Tupelo or Sour Gum found here in Cook County, four species in our southeastern states, another in central China and one in the Indo-Malayan region. Fossils of about 30 species have been found in preglacial rocks throughout the North Temperate and Arctic zones.

Tupelo Gum, like the Bald Cypress and other trees that grow in water, has a flaring buttressed base and wide-spreading roots. Frequently 80 to 100 feet tall and 3 or 4 feet in diameter, it has a long clear bole topped by a narrow crown of short spreading branches and large oval leaves. It is an eerie experience to glide in a dugout canoe through the silent dimness of a cypress and tupelo swamp where the dark water is dappled here and there with patches of sunlight and the conical cypress knees cluster like hooded gnomes around their majestic parents.

The tupelo has a purple plum-like fruit with acrid flesh and a flat pit with 10 wing-like ridges. Large quantities of these seeds are produced each year and float away on the water. The wood is nearly white and widely used for crates and boxes or a veneer for berry boxes. Light and weak but difficult to split, it make good planks for warehouse floors and platforms. The exceptionally light wood in the swollen butts is used as floats for fish nets.

It is interesting to note how many of our trees have kinfolks in China.

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