Sweetgum Tree (Liquidambar styraciflua)
The tall trunks and shapely canopies of Sweetgum trees are easily overlooked in their native woodland settings, but they are standouts in spacious home landscapes. These trees derive their common name from the aromatic gum, or resin, that exudes from bruised stems. The Latin name translates to “liquid amber,” again referring to a the sweet-tasting resin. The Sweetgum is also known as Gumball Tree, Redgum, Star-leaved gum, Alligator-wood, and Gumtree. Sweetgums’ hardwood makes them resistant to wind damage and commercially useful for furniture.
More than one creative gardener and Sweetgum fan has struggled to find a use for its interesting, but prickly, gumballs produced by the tree. One of the more creative uses is as slug barriers. Collect the gumballs and then lay them down as mulch around plants vulnerable to slugs, such as hostas or lettuce. No guarantees but give it a try.
|Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)||At 20 years height is 20’ and spread is 12’. Mature height is 60 to 75’ with a spread of 30 to 50’. Growth rate medium to fast at 12 to 15 inches per year||Zones 5 to 9, full sun in moist acidic well drained soils. Can tolerate poor soils.|
In pioneer times the sweet, balsamic resin was used as a treatment for sores, chest colds, and even dysentery. It also was made into a type of chewing gum. In the past, Sweetgums had commercial value in the making of soaps, adhesives, and pharmaceuticals. Today its wood remains valuable for lumber and veneer.
Sweetgums are the host plant for the caterpillar of the spectacular Luna Moth. At least 25 species of birds are known to feed on the fruit of the Sweetgum as well as the gray squirrel and eastern chipmunk.
At a slow to medium rate of growth, they add between 1 and 4 feet per year when they are young. Their youthful leafy canopy is conical in shape, becoming more elongated as they age. Sweetgums are long lived, typically lasting from 150 to 300 years.
The glossy leaves of Sweetgums resemble those of maples, but a closer look reveals a more lustrous, smoother surface, and lobes resembling a 5-pointed star. They are usually 4 to 7 inches across and grow alternately along the tyree stems. Native to Southeastern U.S., they emerge later than most in the spring on branches that sometimes have ridges of corky bark along them. In the fall they turn a handsome red, purple or bright orange before they drop in the fall. Interestingly the fall colors of the Sweetgum is not temperature dependent, so it provides a fine display of color even in warmer regions of the country, making it a favorite for Northerners transplanted to California..
Inconspicuous flowers bloom in spring which eventually give way in mid-summer to woody balls about 1 to 1 ½ inches in diameter which are covered with curved spines and contain 1 or 2 winged seeds. They hang on long stems. Green at first, they turn tan/brown as the season progresses and often persist through January. Sweetgums usually will not produce flowers or those prickly nuts until it is 15 to 20 years old.
Gumball is a rounded, fruitless, large shrub. Variegata has green foliage marked with yellow streaks and blotches. Rotundiloba (‘Obtusiloba’) is fruitless. The tips of the lobes on its foliage are rounded., has a narrow pyramidal form, not terribly cold hardy, not lower than zone 6. Burgundy has beautiful glossy green leaves, holds its deep purple fall leaves into the winter, narrow pyramid, less cold hardy, more adapted to the southern part of the its range. Moraine is reputed to be the most cold hardy, and has good form and leaf characteristics. Gold Dust is also cold hardy whereas ‘Festival’ and ‘Burgundy’ are reputed to be less cold hardy and better adapted to warmer climates. Festival shows a narrow upright growth habit, peach-0colored fall foliage, less cold hardy, more adapted to the southern part of the range