AppearanceSweet gum is one of the main valuable forest trees in the southeastern United States, and is a popular ornamental tree in temperate climates. It is recognizable by the combination of its five-pointed star-shaped leaves and its hard, spiked fruits. It is currently classified in the plant family Altingiaceae, but was formerly considered a member of the Hamamelidaceae.
NamingThis plant's genus name ''Liquidambar'' was first given by Linnaeus in 1753 from [the Latin] ''liquidus, fluid,'' and the Arabic ''ambar, amber'', in allusion to the fragrant terebinthine juice or gum which exudes from the tree. Its specific epithet ''styraciflua'' is an old generic name meaning "flowing with storax" . The name "storax" has long been confusingly applied to the aromatic gum or resin of this species, that of ''L. orientalis'' of Turkey, and to the resin better known as benzoin from various tropical trees in the genus ''Styrax''.
The sweetgum has a Nahuatl name, ''Ocotzocuahuitl'', which translates to ''tree that gives pine resin'' from ''ocotl'' , ''tzotl'' , ''cuahuitl'' , which refers to the use of the tree's resin.
The common name "sweet gum" refers to the species' "sweetish gum", contrasting with the black gum '''', only distantly related, with which the sweet gum overlaps broadly in range. The species is also known as the "red gum", for its reddish bark.
DistributionSweetgum is one of the most common hardwoods in the southeastern United States, where it occurs naturally in lowlands from southwestern Connecticut south to central Florida, and west to Illinois, southern Missouri, and eastern Texas, but not colder highland areas of Appalachia or the Midwestern states. The species also occurs in Mexico from southern Nuevo León south to Chiapas, as well as in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras. In Mexico and Central America, it is a characteristic plant of cloud forests, growing at middle elevations in various mountainous areas where the climate is humid and more temperate.
The US government distribution maps for this species are incorrect concerning the southern limit of distribution in Florida. This species occurs abundantly at Highlands Hammock State Park, Sebring, Highlands County, FL, and even southwest of Lake Okeechobee.
Grown as an ornamental tree in Australia, liquidambar styraciflua has a distribution on mainland Australia from Victoria all the way up to the Atherton tablelands in far North Queensland in 'tropical' climates. One of the dominant deciduous trees planted throughout subtropical Brisbane.
EvolutionThe earliest known published record of ''Liquidambar styraciflua'' is in a work by Spanish naturalist Francisco Hernández published posthumously in 1615, in which he describes the species as a large tree producing a fragrant gum resembling liquid amber, whence the genus name ''Liquidambar.'' In John Ray's ''Historia Plantarum'' it is called ''Styrax liquida''. However, the first mention of any use of the amber is described by Juan de Grijalva, the nephew of the governor of Cuba, in the year 1517.
Juan de Grijalva tells of gift exchanges with the Mayas "who presented them with, among other things, hollow reeds of about a span long filled with dried herbs and sweet-smelling liquid amber which, when lighted in the way shown by the natives, diffused an agreeable odour."
The species was introduced into Europe in 1681 by John Banister, the missionary collector sent out by Bishop Compton, who planted it in the palace gardens at Fulham in London, England.An ancestor of ''Liquidambar styraciflua'' is known from Tertiary-aged fossils in Alaska, Greenland, and the mid-continental plateau of North America, much further north than ''Liquidambar'' now grows. A similar plant is also found in Miocene deposits of the Tertiary of Europe.
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