A blog focused on nature, science, environmental topics, and happenings at the Pocono Environmental Education Center (PEEC).

A Naif in the Forest by Darrell Berger

Wing Tips to Hiking Boots: Musings of a New, Full-Time Poconos Resident 

Last month when we were staying on the southern tip of Maryland’s eastern shore, these spiky, dried pods were everywhere. They are the desiccated fruit of the sweetgum tree, one of the most common trees throughout the south but relative newcomers here. Some maps of their range do not include us, yet we have all seen these spiky pods, if in far less quantity than further south. 

The first historical sweetgum reference is from a Conquistador in 1519 who witnessed a ritual between Cortez and Montezuma as they shared its amber liquid. For many years its liquor was used in a variety of folk and even commercial remedies. 

They grow quickly and resist insects, are called “pioneer trees” rather than invasive because they do no harm and can be used for reforestation. Needle-like edges make the fruit inedible, though just beyond them the fifty to sixty seeds found within each fruit are highly favored by birds and squirrels, especially gold finches. 

The wood is difficult to season, warps easily and is harder than oak to split. Sweetgum is not great for sturdy furniture or firewood, but is a valuable cash crop in the making of plywood, veneers, crates and barrels. The dried fruit balls are in demand crushed up for mulch or used in a variety of crafts from making holiday decorations to year-round ornamentation. 

Its greatest contribution to local culture is its autumn colors. Its brilliant and fiery red, oranges, yellows and purples challenge, and some insist, exceed the maple. However, its natural home is farther south and an early frost may wilt the leaves before they can turn. One of the factors in how spectacular our autumn colors will be is whether the sweetgum will join the maple. 

The sweetgum tree is hard but vulnerable. It is easily warped but provides an attractive veneer. It is decorative but prickly. Its colors are charming but prone to wilting.  It is more at home in the south but travels well. A sweetgum tree in the Poconos is like Blanche Dubois at a hunting lodge.


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