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Water Loving Trees - The Gum Trees

( Originally Published 1927 )

Southern people talk more about "gum trees" than people in the North. Two of our three native species of Nyssa belong solely to southern swamps, and the third, which comes north to Canada, is oftener called by other names. All these trees are picturesque, with twiggy, contorted branches; tough, cross-grained wood; alternate, simple, leathery, but deciduous leaves, beautiful at all seasons; minute flowers and fleshy, berry-like fruits.

The Sour, or Black, Gum

Nyssa sylvatica, Marsh.

The sour or black gum of the South has a wide range, being hardy to southern Ontario and Maine. To the New Englander this is the "pepperidge"; the Indians called it "tupelo"; but the woodsman, North and South, calls it the gum tree, as a rule. "Black gum" refers to its dark gray, rough bark, which is broken into many-sided plates. By this, it is easily distinguished from the "red gum" or liquidamber, which grows in the same situations, but is not related to it. "Sour gum " refers to the acid, blue-black berries, one to three in a cluster, ripe in October.

We shall know this tree by its tall, slender trunk, clothed with short, ridged, full-twigged, horizontal branches. With no claim to symmetry, the black gum is a striking and picturesque figure in winter. It is beautiful in summer, covered with the dark polished leaves, two to four inches long. In autumn patches of red appear as the leaves begin to drop. This is the tupelo's signal that winter is coming. Soon the tree is a pillar of fire against yellowing ashes and hickories. The reds of the swamp maple and scarlet oak are brighter, but no tree has a richer color than this one. A spray brought in to decorate the mantelpiece lasts till Christmas holly displaces it. The leaves, being leathery, do not curl and dry, as do thin maple leaves, in the warm air of the house.

The Cotton Gum N. aquatica, Marsh.

The cotton gum is draped in cottony white down as the new shoots start and the leaves unfold in spring. In mid-summer this down persists in the leaf-linings, lightening the dark green of the tree-tops. The dark blue fruits of this species have no culinary value. The wood is used for crating material. The tree reaches its maximum height—one hundred feet—in the cypress swamps of Louisiana and Texas, its abundant, corky roots adapting it to its habitat.

The Sweet Gum

Liquidamber styraciflua, Linn.

The sweet gum is a tall tree with a straight trunk, four to five feet in diameter, with slender branches covered with corky bark thrown out in wing-like ridges. At first the head is regular and pyramidal, but in old age it becomes irregularly oblong and comparatively narrow. The bark is reddish brown, deeply furrowed between rough scaly plates, marked by hard, warty excrescences.

The leaves are lobed like a maple's, but more regularly, so as to form a five-pointed star. Brilliant green in summer, they become streaked with crimson and yellow. Wherever these gum trees grow, the autumn landscape is painted with the changeful splendor of the most gorgeous sunset. "The tree is not a flame, it is a conflagration !" Often along a country road the rail fence is hidden by an. undergrowth of young gum trees. Their polished star leaves may pass from green into dull crimsons and then into lilacs and so to brown, or they may flame into scarlets and orange instead, Always, the foliage of the sweet gum falls before it loses its wonderful colors.

The flowers of the sweet gum are knobby little bunches; the swinging balls covered with curving horns contain the winged seeds, small but shaped like the key of the maple. One recognizes the gum tree in winter by these swinging seed-balls, an inch in diameter, like the balls of the buttonwood, except that those are smooth. (See illustrations, pages 102-108.) The best distinguishing mark of sweet gums in winter are the corky ridges on the branches, and the star-shaped leaves under the trees. Sweet gum sap is resinous and fragrant. Chip through the bark, and an aromatic gum soon accumulates in the wound. The farther South one goes, the more copious is the exudation. In Mexico a Spanish explorer described, in 1651, "large trees that exude a gum like liquid amber." This is the "copalm balm" gathered and shipped each year to Europe from New Orleans and from Mexican ports. The fragrant gum, storax or styrax, derived from forests of the oriental sweet gum in Asia Minor, is used as incense in temples of various oriental religions. It blends with frankincense and myrrh in the censers of Greek and Roman Catholic churches. It is used in medicines also, and as a dry gum is the standard glove perfume in France.

Beautiful and interesting in every stage of growth, our native sweet gums are planted largely in the parks of Europe and are earning recognition at home, through the efforts of tree-lovers who would make the most of native species in ornamental planting.

The name, gum tree, is applied to our tupelos, and to the great tribe of Australian eucalyptus trees, now largely planted in the Southwest.

The Osage Orange

Toxylon pomiferum, Raff.

Related to figs and mulberries, but solitary in the genus toxylon, is the osage orange, a handsome round-headed tree, native of eastern North America, whose fleshy roots and milky, bitter, rubbery sap reveal its family connections with the tropical rubber plants. (See illustration, page 119.) The fruits are great yellow-green globes, four to five inches in diameter, covered on the outside by crowded, one-seeded berries. This compound fruit reveals the tree's relationship to both figs and mulberries.

The aborigines, especially of the Osage tribe, in the middle Mississippi Valley, cherished these trees for their orange-yellow wood, which is hard, heavy, flexible, and strong-the best bow-wood to be found east of the Rocky Mountains. When the settlers came the sharp thorns with which the branches are effectually armed appealed strongly to the busy farmers and the tree was widely planted for hedges. Nurserymen produced them by thousands, from cuttings of root and branch. These trees made rapid growth and seemed most promising as a solution of the fencing problem, but they did not prove hardy in Iowa and neighboring states. Even now remnants of those old winter-killed hedges may be found on farm boundaries, individual trees having been able to survive.

The native osage orange timber is about all gone, for the rich bottom lands where it once grew most abundantly in Oklahoma and Texas have been converted into farm land.

However, the growing of osage orange timber for posts is on the increase. Systematically maintained, plantations pay well. The wood is exceptionally durable in soil. Good prices are paid for posts in local markets. Twenty-five posts can be grown to the rod in rows of a plantation; they grow rapidly and send up new shoots from the roots.

The brilliant, leathery leaves and conspicuous green fruits make this native bow-wood a very striking lawn tree. It holds its foliage well into the-autumn and turns at length into a mass of gold. It harbors few insects, has handsome bark, and is altogether a distinguished, foreign-looking tree.

Experiments of feeding osage orange leaves to silkworms have been successfully made at different times, but nowhere in America has silk culture succeeded. Since the white mulberry is hardy here and its foliage is the basis of the silk-growing industry in the Old World, it is futile to look for substitutes in the osage orange or any other tree.

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