Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tuesday's Trees- Liquidambar styraciflua

Yes, I know everyone wanted a profile of the ever popular Sweetgum tree.  I think it is the tree that everyone loves to hate.  Planted in the home garden it is a nuisance because of the gumballs that fall every year.  These spiny seed pods riddle the neighborhood lawns, much to the dismay of those who tend the lawns. 

This native tree is a great food source  for birds and small animals.  Additionally the tree is a handsome hardwood used in many commercial applications.   The wood has many uses; from veneers, plywood, crates, boxes, furniture to railroad ties.  

The native range of this tree is roughly south of Pennsylvania through Maryland and Virginia, south to Florida.  The western range reaches Texas along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and is as far north as the bootheel of Missouri, heading eastward through Kentucky and Tennessee.  In other words, the South is blessed with Gumballs.    Zone hardiness 5-9. 
The tree is monoecious and the flowers, both male and female are inconspicuous, though those little seedballs are anything but ~!   It is propagated by seed, as anyone who has a Liquidambar in their yard can tell you. 

An immature twig is yellow green in color.
As the bark and twigs of this tree mature, they usually grow corky apendages.  Some of these wings are quite large and contorted looking.  A young tree has a smooth bark with bumps and warts, as the tree matures the trunk becomes more ridged and the bark is gray/ brown.  These wings are one of the best indentifying characteristics of Sweetgum trees....especially when the leaves are gone and the last of the gumballs have fallen. 

The Sweetgum goes by other common names, perhaps given a good PR firm, it could get a little more respect.  Other names are Starleaf-gum, redgum, or sapgum.  Starleaf-gum is a good one to describe its beautiful leaves.  These leaves are 4- 7 inches in diameter. 

In the fall these beautiful star shaped leaves turn glorious colors, ranging from bright yellow to purple-red.  It is a striking tree in the landscape in the fall.   The overall shape of the tree is cone shaped symmetrical reaching heights of 100 feet tall.   It grows in full sun to part shade and known as a fast grower.  I have lots of little Sweetgum in my woods.  We did have some in the garden areas of the yard that were taken out.  I will let the trees be in the woods, but I am with the rest of you---keep them out of the gardens.  These trees can live 100- 150 years. 

The leaves, when crushed are aromatic.  In addition to the lumber's commercial uses, the gum (resin) has been used for soaps, in adhesives, and for chewing gum.  So, next time you are thinking how much you dislike that Sweetgum, think about all the benefits this tree has to offer.

references-- VTech- good photos with concise information, US Forestry Silvics Manual-- always an excellent source of detailed information, and Duke-- great photos of the flowers- both male and female. Floridata, always another good source.

thanks for visiting this week's edition of Tuesday's Trees, next week's tree- Sycamore.

words and photos by Janet,The Queen of Seaford.


  1. I love the color change in the Fall from these trees. I had one come up volunteer but got rid of it due to the spiny balls that it drops. They are a nuisance. My acorns are enough.

  2. Some trees definitely belong in woodland rather than the garden, but this one looks as if it is a real asset in the right place. Gorgeous leaves and bark.

  3. Janet,

    These trees grow around the edges of our forest. When I cut them down they make me sneeze. One job I was on in Durham had seed pods as big as golf balls!

  4. I love the name of it so much. Forget about those balls though. These are such beautiful trees!

  5. Hi Janet,

    I never could understand how someone could hate a tree! A friend of mine cut down Aspens ( gasp) for an ugly barn.
    These sweetgums sure live a long time!

    Have you seen Toy Story 3 with Ken and Barbie? That is my daughter's favorite part where Ken has a huge wardrobe of clothes and is trying them on.

  6. I love love love these trees. I don't have any hate for them, even when I'm outside barefoot. I love their bark, I love their leaves, I love their fall color, I love the way their sap smells, I love their architecturally fascinating little gumballs even when they are distracting me from morels in the spring.

    I also love that this is one of the main host trees for luna moth caterpillars and their relatives. Great post!

  7. We have a lot of Sweetgums here too. They are reliable for fall color and I love how the leaves change from yellow to orange to red to purple.

  8. We have these all over Portland...and I think they are great...love the fall color and I think the spiky balls are kind of cool!

  9. Personally, I love sweegums! It doesn't seem to me that the fruits are so bad, especially as a woodland garden tree.

  10. I have learned so much about trees from your blog! The sweetgum is a beautiful tree.

  11. I've stepped on these little spiny balls walking through wooded areas, and I agree it's a beautiful tree in the woods, but not in the home landscape. Thanks for another great informative post, Janet!

    Last week you asked for suggestions--have you ever written about the linden tree? Perhaps you already have; it's a tree I know little about but is very common in Illinois.

  12. I don't really know much about Sweet Gums but the seed pods remind me of my high school Biology teacher who had me stand in front of the class while he tossed some at me to show how they stuck to my sweater. Whatever he was trying to teach that day I don't remember, but will always be reminded of it when I see these trees.
    The leaves really are pretty, I think I've seen them and thought they were some type of maple.

  13. Well finally you picked a tree that is not on my favorites lists. I don't dislike them though, especially if they are in other people's gardens. Also, where would our fall woodlands be without their color? (BTW, the gumballs make a great mulch for indoor plants to keep kitties from making tootsie rolls in the soil.)

  14. It is a very beautiful tree! thank you very much for all the information

  15. Those spiny seed pods look lethal! Everything else about this tree sounds great tho. How interesting that it's used in chewing gum ~ I'm probably more familiar with it than I thought!!

  16. Lola, I understand the desire to be rid of this because of the spiny balls.

    Janet, This is a beautiful tree in the woodland.

    Randy, I am amazed at the size of some of these seed pods.

    Tina, I agree!

    Rosey, I know, hate is pretty strong. I can't imagine cutting down Aspens.

    Eliza, You must have tough feet. The seed balls are interesting, true. Thanks for the added info about the Luna Moth caterpillars.

    Sweetbay, Their fall colors are stunning.

    Scott, They are super cool, until you are walking in your garden...barefooted.

    Lisa, In the woodland garden they are pertect.

    Jennifer, I am glad you have learned along with me.

    Rose, thanks! Appreciate the suggestion.

    Catherine, Sounds like your Biology teacher was using live demostrations...you remembered some of it!

    Les, Absolutely amazing this isn't on your fav list! Husband liked your suggestion for kitty tootsie rolls.

    fer, thanks!

    Kathleen, I am not sure I would say lethal...annoying, yes, not lethal.


If you use "Anonymous" please sign your name so I know who you are...there is a lot of spam out there. Thanks for visiting today. The Queen would be pleased if you left a comment...... :-D thanks! I do respond to your comments, you can click on the email followup comments to have it in your inbox.

I am now moderating all comments. Too much spam is coming through. Sorry folks.