Southern Blend – Goblin balls and sweetgums
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Goblin balls and sweetgums
In case you’re not already aware, my father was a career woodworker. I learned my lumbers at an early age – not just walnut and the oaks, but padouk, ebony, birdseye, zebrawood, et cetera. I’ve had a deeply ingrained love for the beauty of natural wood all my life. I’m fond of trees, as well. I remember as a child asking my mother what the word “rural” meant. Her response? “A place with more trees than people.”
That definition sticks with me today, and I often find myself mentally measuring the ratio of people to trees wherever I’m at. Do it yourself sometime, and I think you’ll find a common thread here. The presence of tall shady trees is a prerequisite for Southern life.
You could say a lot about pines as a prominent feature of Southern forests. I can’t argue with that, of course. But pines are full-on American trees. Instead, I wanna’ talk to you about the sweetgum tree.
Y’all remember the first time your folks taught you about sweetgums? Some important adult in your life pulled down one of those broad, bright green, star-shaped leaves at some point. The leaves are veiny, and they’re much bigger up close than you’d realized. Then they crushed that leaf up in their hand – the leaf turned a dark, wet green. They held the mash up to your nose, and it was filled with a lemony, syrupy, thick smell that you’ll never forget.
Of course, then you grew up and got a lawn, and you learned to deeply, deeply, deeply, deeply, DEEPLY hate those spiky brown balls that they drop. Whether you call them pods, brown balls, spike balls, or goblin balls, they sure were fun to throw at the other kids after church. That said, ever step on one barefoot? No thank you.
However, here’s a few things you may not know about everyone’s favorite tree:
Foremost, the sweetgum helps to treat your flu! The primary ingredient of the medication Tamiflu is shikemic (Shuh-Kee-Mik) acid. There are three trees that are high in shikemic acid – star anise pods, pine needles and sweetgum pods. While star anise and pine have myriad other uses, sweetgum pods can be harvested more plentifully for these purposes. One source notes that sweetgum tea was a common Cherokee treatment for the flu.
The bark of the sweetgum tree exudes a highly beneficial sap, according to an article from “Pharmacognosy Review,” published by a multidisciplinary team of scientists. The sap is referred to as storax and has “proven to be a strong antimicrobial agent, even against multidrug resistant bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus.” Compounds found in the extracts taken from the sap have suppressed hypertension in mice. Storax extracts are also effective in reducing nematode and yellow mosquito populations! We have been utilizing the medicinal and environmental features of sweetgum all the way back to the Aztec Empire in 10,000 – 7,000 BC.
Those pods that you hate also have some fantastic uses in the garden, as well. Rather than buying some overpriced rocks from the Home Depot, you can use the pods in the bottoms of your flower pots to improve drainage. Of course you can also use them as mulch, as well. One particularly useful idea is to scatter the pods around your flower beds to reduce the prevalence of slugs and bugs on your plants.
If you’re interested, sweetgum also has a fair amount of use in magick, as well. In this context you’ll find the pods referred to as Witches’ Burrs. You can hang a bundle of these in your front entrance to attract good spirits and block negative spirits. In spells, charms and rituals, they are purported to add power to any magickal workings. They’re also made into amulets for protection, fertility and wealth.
No matter how green your thumb or witchy your home life, I think we can all appreciate the sweetgum tree. It’s often one of our first trees where we get to experience more than just visual enjoyment. Now that things are warming up and quarantine is lifted, I highly recommend you maintain those natural roots that we settled during 2020. And please don’t forget to crush some leaves for a kid.