I can’t seem to scrape the Virginia off my soul, and it’s even gotten under my skin. I’ve had poison ivy boils, mosquito bites, and jellyfish stings; my feet are scarred from “sweetgum” attacks. An inedible fruit with sharp edges seems like a cruel joke. The first time I stepped barefoot onto a lump in the lawn, sharper than a legion of Legos, I assumed the worst, that the sweet gum, like many of the other sweet Virginians I had met, had it in for me. I had been in that state long enough to believe that “bless your heart” was a curse, as cursed as the stubborn soil that rejects the lilac and welcomes the weed.
Little did I know that this tree provides the most valuable hardwood in the southeastern U.S. Sometimes the tree is called alligatorwood because of its scaly bark, which can be used as a tea to treat digestive problems. I’d never bothered to learn its true name, Liquambar, for its sap, which apparently has a wonderful scent. The Mayas filled hollow reeds with this gum and some dried herbs and used them as torches. The sap has been used as chewing gum, an anti-inflammatory or as a balm for skin problems. The fall colors of the star-shaped leaves seem to be a sufficient apology for foot injuries.
I have learned that it is possible for something to be annoying and painful and simultaneously beautiful and valuable.
Read more about the sweet gum tree.