Mystery Plant! #721

John Nelson

Posted 5/4/23

By John Nelson

(Photo by Linda Lee.)

All the leaves seem to be unfolding or already expanded around us now, or just about, and it’s time to discuss…again…a tree with very distinctive foliage.

Now, I must report that this past Friday I was leading a field trip for a crowd of Master Naturalists here in South Carolina, a field trip sponsored by our very active local chapter of the Wildlife Federation. What a wonderful time it was: we all met up at a place not too far from Columbia called “Peach Tree Rock Preserve”, managed by the Nature Conservancy. I’ve known of this place since I was an undergraduate student many years ago, and the place is still an enduring fascination for me, and I might think just about any naturalist who ends up there.

This is one of the first trees we saw on the trail. It is potentially a very large tree, up to 120 or so feet tall. It is a common forest component from southern New England through the lower Ohio River Valley, all the way to Texas and through the upper half of Florida. You don’t see it too much in the higher elevations of the Appalachians, but otherwise, it is a standard component of many woodland environments throughout the Southeast. It seems to prefer rich, moist river bottoms, and tolerates a fair amount of flooding. It is adaptable to drier settings, too, such as the high ground of the sandhills where we were checking it out.

The bark on large individuals is a handsome grey, finely braided. Twigs commonly bear odd, corky outgrowths, sometimes as a series of warty bumps, or perhaps as prominent ridges. (Don’t ask me what they are for. A lot of structures on plants seem to have no apparent utility or function.) But it is the leaves of this tree, in our image as they appear in the summer, which instantly separate this species from everything else: nothing else has smooth leaves with five (sometimes seven) lobes, these toothy, and when crushed, releasing that distinctive medicinal scent. Indeed, maple leaves are similar in shape, but note that a maple’s leaves are always “opposite” or two-at-a-time on the twig, rather than our Mystery Plant’s, whose leaves are alternate, one at each node. By the way, for autumn color, this species is hard to match. Its leaves are variable from tree to tree, commonly bright gold, but also orange, ruby red or a deep russet. Of course, right now the leaves are nice and fresh, dark green and handsome.

This is one of those trees which produces both male and female flowers. The male flowers are tiny and in clusters on upright stalks, while the female flowers (also tiny) are in globose heads. As the female flowers age, they coalesce into a distinct green ball, which at maturity is hard and prickly, no fun to step on. You’ll also want to know of this tree’s sap, which once upon a time was used rather extensively for medicinal purposes by Native Americans and settlers.

[Answer: “Sweetgum,” “Redgum,” Liquidambar styraciflua]

John Nelson is the retired curator of the Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit or email

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