Les Harrison is your local UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Director
Yaupon and sweet gum have a history dating back before Seminoles roamed this region. Yaupon was used in ceremonies as a natural “cleanse,” resulting in settlers giving it the Latin name, Ilex Vomitoria. The Creek word describing the ceremony’s leader, “asi-yahola,” translates to, “black drink singer.”
It is thought that Osceola, the Seminole War Chief’s name, was a mispronunciation of his actual title. As for the sweet gum, its infamy lies in the painful burrs it produces. Many bare feet fall victim to the trees attempt to spread seeds.
The sweet gum is a deciduous tree with the capacity to reach more than 100 feet in height. The scientific name, Liquidambar, denotes its sap as having the qualities of “liquid amber,” both in color and texture. Locally, the tree is easy to identify by its prolific production of unique burrs which hold copious quantities of tiny seed. Anyone who dares stroll barefooted near a sweet gum tree will experience the burrs’ effects in short order.
The burrs are easily distributed in a hard rain when they float to new locations. They also can become lodged in animal fur and deposited to new locales. The tiny seed quickly germinates and sends down a deep, fast-growing taproot. Within one season, a sapling is established and displaying leaves similar to that of a maple.
In addition to the seed, sweet gums send out shallow surface roots far beyond the tree’s drip line. Those roots will breach the surface periodically and send up sprouts which become another tree. If the opportunity is right, a single sweet gum tree quickly becomes a thicket. This same technique is used by the yaupon, a native holly.
Ilex vomitoria, as the yaupon is known scientifically, gets its identification from a tea once made using its roots. Those who consumed the brew often regurgitated their stomach’s contents. The native evergreen is found in the wild, but named cultivars have been refined for use by landscapers and nurseries.
The shrub or small tree is commonly found from Maryland to Texas in the well-drained sandy soils of coastal areas. It produces large volumes of bright red berries which feed an array of birds and wildlife. In late winter, the leaves are a popular menu choice for white-tailed deer as other food sources run short.
Like the sweet gum, the yaupons’ surface roots extend far from the trunk and will sprout a new plant when the soils surface is broken. Yaupon thickets are a common occurrence in the wild parts of Wakulla County.
To learn more about aggressive plants–native or exotic–in Wakulla County, contact your local UF/IFAS Wakulla Extension Office at (850) 926-3931 or email us at https://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco/