O land and soil, red soil and sweet-gum tree,

So scant of grass, so profligate of pines,

~Jean Toomer, Song of the Son

The Sweet Gum tree is a truly beautiful tree for your landscape, although not everyone is a fan. The Latin name is Liquidambar styraciflua , while the common name is also be known as “Redgum”. It is a native American tree from the eastern part of North America.

Several years ago I planted several Sweet Gum trees on my property. Of those, I lost one, for an unknown reason. The three that I still have are thriving, they provide year round beauty, but their time to shine is the autumn, I think. Sweet Gum trees turn gorgeous colors of crimson, orange, and gold…all in one tree. Some years, like the last one, the leaves seems to be persistent, somewhat like oak trees in that respect.

sweet gum leaves

Liquidambar leaves courtesy of wikipedia

Ever since I was a young girl I loved the star shaped leaves of the Liquidambar styraciflua. During the growing season these graceful leaves are a glossy green, they make a beautiful shade tree; there are a number of named cultivars. Some of those are:

  • Lane Roberts
  • Rotundiloba
  • Golden Treasure

 

autumn Sweetgum

Notice the green leaves on the tree to the right, both were planted at the same time, both are Sweetgums.

Liquidambar Styraciflua Appearance

  • May grow from 60-70 feet tall and 45′ wide.
  • medium green color with gorgeous autumn color
  • well covered in foliage of starry shaped leaves, of five to seven divisions
  • gray brown fissured bark
  • pyramid shaped

Easy to grow, the sweet gum adapts to most soils and conditions.

Likes moisture, doesn’t like pollution.

Better transplanted in spring, like the magnolias, but not as touchy about their roots being disturbed. It is important to use trees from a northern source for hardiness in New England and other Northern states.

Sweet Gum Tree Cultivation

    • Zones 5-9
    • grows moderately
    • full sun to partial sun
    • likes rich, moist soils, but highly adaptable
    • the seedballs are a nuisance near sidewalks

“The biggest example in Ohio today grows in Scioto County and is 107 feet tall and 5.5 feet in diameter.”

Fertilize occasionally and use iron chelate if necessary if necessary.

Sometimes a sweet gum tree will develop iron chlorosis, from an alkaline soil. Some people really hate the seedballs, considering them a bother to clean up. Other people like them for craft projects and mulching.

“Chlorosis is a fancy name for yellowing of plant foliage (of a normally green plant) due to a lack of chlorophyll development. Often the leaf veins remain green. At first the plant may appear lighter green than usual. Usually, the youngest leaves show the most yellowing. In some cases only part of the plant may be affected.”-U. of Illinois

The surface roots can crack sidewalks, similar to the problem with maples. There are similar warning about their roots seeking out moisture in drainage pipes, just like willows do. Plant in areas away from drains.

leaves

the leaves turning scarlet in early fall

You might worry about planting a Sweet Gum with all those caveats, but it is mostly a matter of situating the tree in the right place. No tree ought to be planted too close to a building, and many trees have a tendency to lift and crack sidewalks, but those with strong surface rooting are the most likely culprits.

I would use a Sweet gum far enough into the yard to provide the shade and moderating cool summer breezes, but away from the driveway and main sidewalks. It would be a beautiful specimen tree.

Propagation

Propagated by seed and greenwood cuttings in summer; try semi-hardwood cuttings in fall.

How to propagate by stem cuttings.

  1. Sweet Gum trees are long lived,excellent shade trees
  2. One of the best for fall color
  3. Provide good food for wildlife including squirrels, chipmunks, cardinals, morning doves, and blue jays [2]
  4. Useful windbreak tree.

Fun Facts

The Arbor Day Foundation includes it in its “Top 9 Fall Foliage Trees

Said to be loved by the yellow-bellied sapsucker.

This tree is one of the most important commercial hardwoods. It is an attractive fine grained wood used for carpentry, flooring, and fine furniture.

The Liquidamber tree exudes a fragrant, resinous sap with a taste reminiscent of licorice. People used to scrape it from the tree and chew like chewing gum. “The tree’s gum has been used for wounds, in medicine, as incense, and for chewing.”[1]

Francisco Hernández, in a published account of 1651, described the tree he found as a large one which had a fragrant gum resembling liquid amber …and that is where the Latin name ‘Liquidambar’ came from.

The Sweet Gum as bonsai.

Take a look:

Photos of the woodgrain of the sweet gum tree when used for wood projects.

The Magnolia page might also interest you.