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There are similarities--but USDA map show Gordonia only in coastal counties (this was in Tallapoosa county--East Central AL) and it is very abundant, and I didn't see any sign of flowering or fruiting structures. I have grown up spending weekends hiking that forest and have seen the tree pictured all of my life but in adulthood am trying to learn the names. Aside from the longleaf pine, companion plants are brackin fern, lots of sourwood, staghorn sumac, Persimmon, Sassafras, and Wax myrtle.
That bud is very unique. I think it is the key to the ID. You may also want to look at Cyrilla racemiflora.
For your county: http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=CYRA
I like going to the USDA plant database and doing a county search.
Looks like a Horse Sugar (aka Sweetleaf, aka Symplocos tinctoria) to me.
I'd say taste it to be sure, but some plants are sweeter than others and if you don't know the taste it might not strike you.. Strange plant. Only semi-evergreen, but it is still fall so no surprise the leaves still look green.
It has characteristics of Symplocos...I wish I had brought a branch home so I could taste the leaves! These photos from Duke show a different bud arangement for that tree...maybe its just the time of year? And the leaves look glossier.
I saw Dukes versions- the bark is ridged on theirs too- that the tree is an evergreen or semi evergreen is a surety, it could be that it is a tree that 'crosses ' with others and is therefore common there. I want to know where that Devilwood naming came from- and yeah I know they change Latin names like diapers, but, where did he get his info from?