In the old days, youngsters throughout the rural South went to the woods, not the grocery store, for their chewing gum. There, they sought out a tree with unusual star-shaped leaves and bark resembling alligator skin. From it they pried off, then popped into their mouths, yellowish brown balls of a fragrant, resinous substance with a licorice-like taste. Their treat was the sap of the native sweet gum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua). Little did they know that this natural confection, called liquidambar, had been in demand for centuries.
As reported by historians traveling with the explorer Cortes in 16th-century Mexico, the Aztec emperor Montezuma relaxed by puffing a cane stuffed with a mixture of tobacco and a flavoring of liquidambar from a tropical variety of sweet gum. But even before that, in Europe, liquidambar was obtained through Asian traders for use in perfume, incense, and for treating diphtheria and flatulence.
Despite the world demand for liquidambar through the centuries, little was done with the yield of the North American sweet gum tree. It did serve as a curative for Confederate soldiers' dysentery, and was harvested during the Second World War when Asian supplies were cut off.
Sweet gum wood, though, has been another story. The often beautifully figured stock can resemble walnut. And when quartersawn, it passes as the costly Circassian walnut fancied for fine furniture and gunstocks.
Illustration: Jim Stevenson