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Photo by Marion Benoist

Featured Plant: the American Sweetgum

By High Line Gardens | September 13, 2019

The sweetgum is one of the climax canopy species of the High Line network of plants, shrubs, and trees.

In the all-new Spur gardens, clematis and wisteria vines hang from gardens along the Coach Passage; flowering beds in the piazza include a mix of grasses and perennials punctuated by the theatrical changing colors of witch hazel shrubs; and raised planters include hackberry, black tupelo, sassafras, strawberry bush, and the biggest tree on the park: the American sweetgum.

The sweetgum is part of our medicinal plants celebration this September. We invite you to participate by joining a tour, attending our wellness fair on September 21, and downloading our medicinal plant guide.

The American Sweetgum

All the gardens of the park can be thought of as a managed urban forest, with each species building upon and balancing with one another to form a unique ecosystem. The sweetgum is one of the climax canopy species of this network of plants, shrubs, and trees.

Looking up at the sweetgum treet with yellow leaves
Fragrant Friend

As a tree with many names, you can identify the sweetgum no matter what you call it: American storax, hazel pine, bilsted, redgum, satin walnut, or alligator wood. Its Nauhtl name is Ocotzocuahuitl, meaning “the tree that gives pine resin,” for the fragrant juice that’s secreted from the tree’s interior. This liquid amber gives the sweetgum its scientific name: liquidambar (from Latin liquidus, for liquid, and Arabic anbar meaning “fragrant”). The amber “gum” gives off a scent like ambergris, the resin-like fixative used in perfume to make scent last longer. The earliest record of the sweetgum comes from Spanish conquistador Juan de Grijalva, who writes of the exchange of amber gifts with the Mayans in 1517 CE. It has since become an important deciduous hardwood native to the temperate climates of northeast United States, Illinois, and southern Missouri; and in Nuevo León and Chiapas, Mexico, and the cloud forests of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

A closeup of the sweetgum's green glossy leaves

Star of the Show

Sweetgum can grow up to 70-feet tall with a trunk 2 – 3 feet in diameter, and can live for up to 400 years. Its wood is harvested for use as plywood, veneer, chopsticks, dyed ebony for cheap black picture frames, and, presciently, the interior of railroad cars and railroad ties. Its hard, spiked fruit blooms in early spring (this fruit also enjoys many names: burr, space bugs, sticker balls) and attracts goldfinches, purple finches, squirrels, and chipmunks. Its bark boasts a thick reptilian texture, and weighs 37lbs per cubic foot. And, the sweetgum’s five-point star-shaped glossy leaves begin a deep green and transform into to a blaze of orange, red, and purple in the fall.

A closeup of a single orange star shaped leaf

What’s Amber?

Amber is the fossilized resin of trees like the American sweetgum. The oldest amber was dated to about 320 million years ago, and necklaces made from amber beads have been found in burial sites dating as far back as 8,000 BCE. This material held important spiritual significance for many cultures—ancient Greek, Chinese, Egyptian, and Mayan, for example. Many caretakers today use amber as teething bracelets for their young ones. And bracelets made of amber are purported remedies for rheumatism, arthritis, and aching muscles and joints, as well as anxiety and congestion.

Come see the Sweetgum saplings on the Spur.

Our horticultural team counts on members and friends like you to help keep the High Line beautiful and thriving. Join our community of supporters who play an essential role in the High Line’s most important gardening projects.

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