Les Harrison is the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Director
Most Wakulla natives will have no problem identifying the sweetgum tree, due to its unique–and painful–burrs, yet few know of the superstition behind them. Besides being sold online as craft items, the seed pods are also popularly sold as, “witch’s burrs.”
Sweetgum burrs are believed, by some, to ward off negativity and serve as amulets of protection. Locals experiencing the burrs barefoot know the opposite to be true.
Sweetgum trees, a Wakulla County native, are appropriately named both in English and in Latin. The scientific name, Liquidambar styraciflua, literally means liquid amber, flowing with plant resin.
This deciduous tree is found in the southeastern U.S., Mexico and the north end of Central America. Member of this tree’s genus are located in Asia and Europe as well.
Fossil records indicate this tree emerged almost a 100 million years ago during the Cretaceous epoch. It once has a much wider range, but time and glaciers have removed its population to warmer latitudes.
Older, larger specimens can reach in excess of 100 feet, but commonly reach 80 feet at maturity. The bark on mature trees is gray with black streaks and grooved vertically.
The bright green leaves are similar in appearance to maples, with five points and distinctly green stems holding them on the branch. Depending on the year and environmental factors, the leaf will turn purplish red to yellow in autumn.
Sweetgums are commonly found in groups and thickets. When uncovered, their shallow roots will send up shoots, establishing another tree.
Their roots extend far beyond this tree’s drip line. Foundations and septic systems located in close vicinity are in danger of damage from encroaching roots.
One distinctive feature, which eases identification, are the burrs produced in late summer. Florida maples produce winged seeds, which flutter away in the breeze, but no burrs.
These round burrs carry seed for the next generation’s colonization of new territory. They roll easily, and float during heavy washing rains.
The burrs are also attractive to wildlife as a food source. Undigested seed can be deposited miles from the parent tree to a susceptible germination site.
This tree is sometimes used in home landscapes, but not close to structures or high traffic areas. In addition to root encroachment problems, the older trees commonly drop limbs of substantial size.
The prolific production of burrs is another problem. They quickly litter a well-manicured area and are painful if stepped on when barefooted.
The straight grained wood has some value in furniture construction and plywood veneers in regions which have sawmills serving those markets niches. Wakulla County is too remote from these mills for the lumber to have much value.
Sweetgum is not considered an acceptable firewood as it deposits excessive soot and resin in the chimney. It also decays quickly when left in the weather, so it has no value as fence post.
Luckily, it does give off a sweet aroma from the sap and has a tenacious ability to flourish.
For more information about the sweetgum tree, view the EDIS publication on Sweetgum.
To learn more about sweetgum trees in Wakulla County, contact your UF/IFAS Wakulla Extension Office at 850-926-3931 or https://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco/