Back in the old days, the native people of North America used various plants to obtain the needed sugar for their diets. With the arrival of the first settlers, a few of the plants the American Indians used become very popular, and they stay so throughout the years, now being sold commercially.
As kids, we learned that flowers produce nectars and that nectar is gathered by bees and made into sweet honey. What we didn’t learn back then is that a lot of plants secrete sugar, and humans have learned to exploit these characteristics to their advantage.
Plants and trees have sweet sap that humans boil down to turn it into syrup or sugar. Other plants exude a gummy substance that can be chewed to obtain the needed sugar. It was a common practice to chew gums from plants in the early days of the pioneers.
12 Sugar and Gums plants to exploit
1. Sugar Pine (Pinus Lambertiana)
The Sugar Pine can be recognized by its thick brown bark with rough ridges, but also by the five leaves or needles in a cluster. The leaves, or needles, are two to almost five inches long. The cones are about six inches thick when opened, and fifteen inches long, sometimes longer. It has the longest cones of any conifer.
This is a common tree in the mountains of California and Oregon. John Muir, who admired beautiful trees, called it the Queen of the Sierras. When it is cut into or is injured, the exuding sap forms lumps of a sugary substance that is at first white but later turns brown. Muir thought this was the best of sweets. I have collected it fresh from the trees in the mountains of the Pacific Coast and found it sweet but cared little for the resinous quality.
However, many young people in the mountains seem to enjoy it. The sugar gradually dissolves, leaving a gummy substance that might serve for chewing just like you would do with any commercial chewing gum.
2. Fir Tree (Abies balsamea)
The Balsam Fir is a slender tree, sometimes reaching a height of eighty feet or even more. However, in the Arctic regions and on mountain tops, it is small, often only a few feet high. The bark is smooth, warty with “balsam blisters.”
The leaves are dark green above, paler beneath, flat, nearly an inch long. The cones are two to four inches long, slightly more than an inch thick, standing erect from the upper side of the branches.
The Balsam Fir ranges from Newfoundland and Labrador to Hudson Hay and Alberta, south to Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Iowa. It generally grows in damp woods and swamps but is often found on mountain tops where evaporation goes on slowly.
Canada balsam is the resinous pitch that exudes from the trunks, forming lumps or blisters. When refined, it is used in the arts, especially in the mounting of microscope slides. Residents of the northern United States and Canada generally refer to it as “spruce gum.”
It has a resinous but not disagreeable flavor and was much used for chewing before the days of pleasantly flavored commercial chewing gums. In many places throughout its range, it was regularly bought and sold at the stores.
For chewing purposes, it was generally molded into short sticks. People make a regular business of going into forests of Fir Trees, gathering the gum, and taking it to market.
I am told that the pitch of the White Pine, Pinus Strobus, is sometimes substituted for that of the Balsam, but it is too sticky and generally has to be boiled before using. The taste is rather displeasing.
3. Red Grass (Phragmites communis)
The common Reed Grass is found in swamps, marshes, and wet places over almost the entire United States, southern Canada, and northern Mexico. It is also widely spread in Europe and Asia.
The culms, or stalks, are stout, usually about an inch thick and five to twelve feet high. The leaves are about an inch wide and generally less than a foot long. The panicle is crowded and plumy, six inches to a foot long. From the large panicle and the size of the stalk, the plant is sometimes called Wild liroomcorn.
It rarely produces seed but spreads by its long horizontal rootstocks. It is claimed that the Indians ate the roots of the reed, but they were fonder of the sugar it produced. Owing to accident or to the attack of insects that puncture the stem, a pasty substance exudes, which hardens into gum.
This gum was collected by the Indians, and it was compressed into balls to be eaten when a sugar intake was need. The Indians of the Mohave Desert collect the plants in marshes, dry the stalks, grind them, and sift out the flour. This contains so much sugar that when placed near a fire, it swells, turns brown, and is then eaten like taffy. Of course, this suggests roasted marshmallows.
A former practice of the Indians, who cut the reeds after the sugar had hardened and placed them on blankets. After they had their fill, the sugar was shaken off and dissolved in water, forming a sweet, nourishing drink.
4. Sweet Gum (Liquidambar Styraciflua)
Also known as Aligatorwood, this large forest tree can be found in damp woods on the coastal plain from Connecticut to Florida and Texas, north in the Mississippi valley to Missouri and Illinois.
The gray, rough bark can be easily recognized by its corky ridges on the branches. The glossy green leaves are star-shaped, that is, with five to seven pointed lobes. In autumn, you can identify the tree without problems since its leaves turn into various shades of red and purple.
The fertile and sterile blossoms are in separate heads. The fertile ones, or those containing the pistils, are on long stems. They form a round, spinose ball nearly an inch and a half in diameter, containing numerous two-beaked capsules.
When the tree is injured, a pleasantly scented balsamic sap follows, which, when it hardens, forms a resin or gum. This gum, copal-balsam or copalm, is sometimes used as a substitute for storax. The commercial storax comes from two other species of Liquidambar growing in southeastern Asia. The resinous gum that our species in North America produces is sometimes used as chewing gum.
5. Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)
The Sugar Maple is a large forest tree with upright branches, the lateral ones often wide-spreading. The bark of old trees is dark gray or brownish, scaly, channeled, forming wide flat ridges. Young trees have bark that is brownish gray and nearly smooth. This is one of the most popular sugar and gums plants you can encounter.
The leaves have long stalks, or petioles. The blades are dark green above, paler beneath, about as wide as long, with five or occasionally three long-pointed irregular or coarse-toothed lobes. The yellow flowers appear just as the leaves are beginning to unfold, or often a few days earlier. They are long-stalked and drooping, making the tree conspicuous in bloom. The winged seeds, or samaras, are about an inch and a half long, and ripen in the autumn.
The Sugar Maple can be found in rich woods, often on hillsides, from Newfoundland to Manitoba, south to Florida and Texas. The wood is very valuable, and many people consider the Sugar Maple to be the most valuable hardwood species in America.
The autumn foliage is probably the most beautiful of all our trees, turning to bright yellow, orange, or even scarlet, so that it is especially desirable for roadside planting. From the latter part of February to early April, depending on the latitude and season, holes are bored in maple trees into which spiles are driven.
The cool, clear sweet sap drips into pails or troughs and is then taken to the “sugarhouse” and boiled down into syrup or maple sugar, as the owner desires. On average, about fifteen quarts of the sap is required to make one pound of sugar. The amount varies greatly; however, the sap of some trees being much sweeter than that of others.
Five or six pounds to a tree is about an average. Some people manage to make twenty-three pounds of sugar from one tree in a season without reboring (making additional holes), and thirty pounds from one tree has been recorded. I knew a very large tree on my father’s farm that dripped eighteen gallons of sap in twenty-four hours.
Clear days after frosty nights are best for sugar making. The mere mention of maple sugar or maple syrup will call forth a chain of recollections to those who have lived in the country where this tree abounds.
Some of the most pleasant recollections are connected with the making of these sweets “tapping” the trees, gathering the sap, and boiling it down in the great pan in the sugarhouse in the woods. There was always enough weirdness about the whole process to excite our imaginations.
Another pleasing pastime was making maple sugar taffy and “sugaring off,” pouring the melted candy on snow and eating it with a fork, a pastime often indulged in by older folks.
These two activities are now being sold to tourists with great success in Canada, and it shows that they haven’t lost their charm throughout the years.
It is believed that the white people learned to make sugar from the maple tree from the Indians. Probably the earliest account was written about 1700. It tells how the Indians gathered the sap in bark or skin vessels and boiled it down in a crude way.
The report says that the sugar lacks the pleasing, delicate taste of cane sugar and almost always has a burnt flavor. Now, our modern society considers it the finest of all sweets.
6. Black Sugar Maple (Acer nigrum)
The Black Maple is a large forest tree, very similar to the Sugar Maple. In fact, so much so that the average observer would take it for one, and indeed, many botanists consider it only a variety of the latter tree.
The bark of this tree is darker, and the leaves not so light beneath as those of the Sugar Maple; and the lobes are broader and shorter. The two species have much the same range, but the Black Sugar Maple does not extend so far south. It seems to be more common in the western part of its range. The sap is sweet and yields much sugar.
7. Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
Also known as Soft or Water Maple, this is a large forest tree with light gray bark, nearly smooth or somewhat flaky in old trees. The twigs have a reddish tinge, often quite red where the growth is rapid.
The leaves have a heart-shaped base, three to five irregular toothed lobes that are sharp at the base. The leaves are smooth and dark green above, very pale beneath. The red or yellowish odorous blossoms in lateral clusters make this tree a pleasing feature of the landscape in early spring.
The winged fruits are small, rarely more than an inch long, and drop early. The foliage turns crimson in autumn.
The Red Maple usually grows in swamps and low ground from Nova Scotia to Manitoba south to Florida and Texas. It produces much sap, which is less sweet than that of the Sugar Maple.
8. Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum)
The Silver Maple is a large forest tree with light gray, flaky bark and wide-spreading branches. The leaves are deeply five-lobed, green above, silvery-white beneath. The flowers, usually pale yellow, appear in early spring. The winged fruits are large, two inches or more, long and mature early.
The Silver Maple is generally found in low grounds and along streams from New Brunswick to Florida, west to South Dakota, and Oklahoma. It is rather scarce in the mountains. The sap produces sugar, but it is not so very sweet.
9. Ash-leaved Maple (Acer negundo)
Also known as the Boxelder or Manitoba Maple, this is a wide-spreading forest tree found along streams, lake shores, and in lowlands from Maine to Manitoba, south to Florida and Mexico. It is rare along the Atlantic coast but is frequently planted and often escapes.
The leaves have three to five leaflets, which are slightly lobed, toothed, or entire. They do not resemble those of a maple tree. The wood is soft, weak, and light.
The sap produces sugar but is less sweet than that of the Sugar Maple. In Illinois and elsewhere, groves of this tree have been planted for making sugar and syrup. The tree is easily grown and requires little maintenance.
10. Skeleton Weed (Lygodesmia juncea)
This plant is a stiff, erect perennial, closely related to the Wild Lettuce. The much-branched stems grow eight to sixteen inches high. The lower leaves are an inch or two long and very narrow. The upper leaves are similar but much smaller, often reduced to narrow scales.
The pink flower heads, composed of five flowers, are at the ends of the branches. The Skeleton Weed is found from Wisconsin and Minnesota to Montana, south to Missouri and New Mexico. The plants are often infested with small round galls that contain much gum.
According to William Gilmore, this plant was used by the Indians of the Missouri River valley for producing chewing gum. He says: “The stems were gathered and cut into pieces to cause the juice to exude. When this hardened, it was collected and used for chewing.”
11. Pilotweed (Silphium laciniatum)
Also known as the Compass Plant and often called Gum Weed, this flowering plant is a rough, coarse perennial, six to twelve feet high. The large basal leaves are cut almost to the midrib, forming numerous narrow lobes. The alternate, sessile stem leaves have their edges vertical, generally pointing north and south. The yellow flower heads are three or four inches across and resemble those of a Wild Sunflower.
The Compass Plant is found on prairies from Ohio to South Dakota, south to Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. The stalk is very resinous, and according to William Gilmore, the Indian children gather chewing gum from the upper parts of the stem, where the gum exudes, forming large lumps. However, from experience, I can tell you that the resinous sap has a rather bitter taste.
12. Sugar Bush (Rhus ovata)
Also known as sugar sumac, this evergreen bush grows on dry hills, especially along the mountains in southern California. The height varies, and although the most common height I around 7 feet, there were sugar bushes found with a height of 30 feet.
The bush has glossy evergreen, dark green, leathery, ovate leaves and stiff panicles of flowers. The bush blooms in April and May, forming 5-petaled flowers that appear to be pink, but upon closer examination actually have white to pink petals with red sepals.
It produces small, red, sticky berries, and records stated that “The sweetish waxen covering of the berries is used by the native tribes for sugar.” The fruits are also used nowadays to make a drink similar to lemonade.
To find out if the sugar and gums plants listed in this article can be found in your area, I recommend using the USDA website. It’s a great tool for finding which plants can be found in the US. Knowing how to use the sugar and gum plants presented may also require some additional research because you will often find that the sap taste can vary quite a lot from one plant to another.
Useful resources to check out: