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American Red Gum: a two timber species.

Tree names are fascinating. The best are descriptive and capture the essence of the tree. The others show a certain theatricality that purists would like to stamp out.

So it is with American red gum, also known as sweet gum. At some point this tree earned the name satin walnut in the United Kingdom. While it is a name that will be included in reference books about Liquidambar styraciflua of the Family Hamamelidaceae, the note that this name is potentially misleading as well as botanically incorrect will also likely be included.

The botanical name for American sweet gum is derived from the Latin liquidis, meaning fluid or liquid, and the Arabic ambar, referring to the sweet-smelling gum which exudes from the tree.

Gum is also the name given to various Species of Eucalyptus. Eucalyptus covers a varied genus of trees native to Australia and Tasmania. The Eucalyptus gums -- the kind Koala bears climb and the ingredient eucalyptus oil is derived from -- will be covered in a future column.

Separate markets

The heartwood and sapwood of sweet gum are marketed separately. Sweet gum heartwood is often called gum, bilsted, American red gum, and satin walnut. The sapwood goes by the names sap gum, and hazel pine -- although this name is also thought to be misleading.

American red gum yields a cream colored sapwood, sold as sap gum. The heartwood, which is pictured on the preceding page, is much more colorful, ranging from pinkish brown to a deep full-bodied red. Streaks of black add character and the wood has a beautiful satin-like luster, which is the probable explanation for the nickname of satin walnut.

"Artists like red gum for marquetry because of its beautiful satin shine and interesting figure," said one veneer expert. "It can have a wonderful mottled look, too. The Italian market seems to have accepted American red gum as a substitute for Italian walnut."

Plentiful supply

Both red gum and sap gum are available in plentiful supply. Prices are reported to vary widely between the heartwood and sap wood. In general, red gum from the heartwood is priced in the valuable price range with top architectural grades the highest and other grades costing less. Although sweet gum is not widely used, one veneer salesperson said he detected an increased interest in the wood in the last few years. The price of sap gum is described as inexpensive.

The many uses for sweet gum include furniture, interior trim, doors and paneling and interior joinery. Other uses include boxes, dry cooperage, crates, chip baskets, small laminated items and for plywood.

Sap gum is a light cream color, ranging to pinkish white. It is susceptible to sap stains which are blue in color. Sap gum has a plain pattern which has been described as watery. The sapwood is definitely less durable than the heartwood. Uses for sap gum include veneer for crossbanding. Lumber is used for furniture parts and cabinetry.

A non-chewing gum

Sweet gum produces gum, but not the kind that is used commercially for chewing. That comes mainly from sapodilla, which produces a gum called chicle, one of the ingredients in chewing gum.

However, sweet gum does produce a gummy compound known as storax. Storax has a variety of uses as an ingredient in perfumes, adhesives and salves. As a member of the witch hazel family, Hamamelidaceace, sweet gum is generally believed to be part of a group of plants that is early on the evolutionary scale. Witch hazel, a sweet smelling lotion, was one of the earliest medicines used for bruises. Yet although sweet gum and witch hazel are related, sweet gum looks more like maple, especially in the leaves.

American red gum is a tall and stately tree with leaves that turn a beautiful deep crimson in the fall. The fruit yielded is brownish and shaped like a spine-tipped ball; the fruit is not commercially harvested and remains on the tree all winter.

Sweet gums grow tall -- some up to more than 125 feet, making it the tallest tree of the witch hazel family,

Overall good workability

The tree grows throughout the United States, south to Mexico, all the way to Central America. In the United States, its range is from southwestern Connecticut westward to Missouri, south to the Gulf of Mexico. For lumber uses, the prime growing areas are the southern and South Atlantic states, but the tree has also been successfully harvested from the western United States region.

Red gum will work easily with hand or machine tools but the gum it exudes can pose a problem on cutting edges, causing a mild blunting. According to experts, it takes nails and screws effectively and is easy to glue. It also finishes well.

American red gum is not at all durable with its prime enemy -- insects. Although the heartwood is moderately resistant to preservatives, the sapwood is permeable.

Relatively famous

Other famous sweet gums, so-called because they give off a fragrant yellow resinous gum, include Oriental sweet gum, Liquidambar orientalis. It is native to Asia minor and one of the main sources for balsam resin. Another is Chinese sweet gum, Liquidambar formosana. Chinese sweet gums are used for commercial purposes, especially the production of Chinese tea chests.

Family names

Liquidambar styraciflua of the Family Hamamelidaceae

Other names

Heartwood: gum, American sweet gum, sweet gum, bilsted, satin walnut Sapwood: sap gum, hazel pine

Weight/height

35 pounds per cubic foot 100 to 150 feet Average diameter: 3 feet 0.56 specific gravity

Mechanical properties

Wood is rateed at moderately heavy and hard; moderately strong, stiff, and high in shock resistance. Very poor steam-bending rating. Easily worked with hand and machine tools.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Vance Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:Wood of the Month
Author:Kaiser, Jo-Ann
Publication:Wood & Wood Products
Date:Sep 1, 1992
Words:943
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