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
SWEET GUM AND TUPELO GUM
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
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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Update: June 2012