The sweet gum tree

Sweetgum Tree Info: How To Grow Sweetgum Trees

Sweetgum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua) look spectacular in fall when their leaves turn brilliant shades of scarlet, yellow, orange or purple. The autumn show continues into late fall and early winter, and these stately shade trees are worth planting just to enjoy this fall color. Birds, chipmunks and squirrels love sweetgum trees, which provide them with food, shelter and nesting sites.

What is a Sweetgum Tree?

Sweetgums are straight, tall trees with a single trunk that reaches a height of 75 feet or more. These handsome trees have a pyramidal canopy when young that becomes rounded with age. They make excellent lawn or shade trees in large landscapes.

Sweet gum tree leaves have five to seven pointed lobes, and their shape will remind you of a star. Mature leaves are 4 to 7 inches wide. Their fall color lasts much longer than most other trees.

The downside to growing a sweetgum tree is the seed pods. Children call them gumballs or stickerballs, and it’s rare to find a child with a sweetgum growing nearby that hasn’t had an unpleasant

experience with the spiky pods. Adults despise them as well because they can roll underfoot and cause a fall, especially on paved surfaces.

Sweetgum Tree Info

Although sweetgum trees are often planted as street trees, they have shallow roots that can lift sidewalks and curbs. If you plan to plant a sweetgum, keep it at least 10 feet from pavements and foundations to avoid damage. The falling gumballs that are a hazard on pavements are another reason to keep them away from sidewalks and driveways.

Sweetgum trees are considered pioneer trees. These are trees that can become invasive in an area because they take root easily from seeds and grow quickly, often excluding all other plants in the area. It’s best to plant them in maintained areas where you’ll be cleaning up the seed pods.

How to Grow Sweetgum Trees

Sweetgums need a location in full sun or partial shade. They grow in almost any soil, from sandy to clay and from acid to slightly alkaline. They have a lot of shallow roots, but they also have some deep roots that prefer moist, deep soil. They tolerate winters in USDA plant hardiness zones 5 through 9.

Water sweetgum trees regularly until they are well-established and growing. Once the trees mature, they tolerate occasional drought as well as periodic flooding. Mature trees need very little care.

Caring for Sweet Gum Trees

Once established, sweetgums need very little care. You don’t need to fertilize them every year, although they appreciate some general purpose fertilizer or compost every few years. The trees are drought tolerant and don’t need to be watered once mature.

Although they don’t need much direct care, they add quite a bit to your fall landscape maintenance. They drop an abundance of leaves that need raking, and gumballs fall from the tree over a period of months. Because of the hazard they present and the potential to take root, you’ll want to keep them swept up.

Liquidambar styraciflua: Sweet Gum Tree Seeds

Zones: 6 to 8
Mature Height: over 100 feet
Mature Spread: 50-75 feet

A medium-sized to large deciduous hardwood tree that is also useful as an ornamental planting due to its brilliant red Fall foliage. Leaves are uniquely star-shaped and fairly large at 6-7 inches. When grown to maturity out in the open the habit of the Sweet Gum tree is beautifully symmetrical and exhibits a cone-shaped crown that becomes more rounded with age – it can grow to be a giant. 50-75 ft. in width at maturity. Fast growth and a wide tolerance for differing conditions make it a good choice as a street tree, shade tree or as a windbreak tree. The Sweet Gum’s beautiful red Fall colour works well with a green lawn in the background. (Fall colour can also be orange/scarlet/purple.) Sweet Gum is a favourite of yellow-bellied sapsuckers

How To Start These Seeds:
Scarification: Soak in water, let stand in water for 12 hours
Stratification: Cold stratify for 30 days
Germination: Sow seed 1/16 inch deep, tamp the soil, keep moist, mulch the seed bed.

Seed Count Per Packet:
This packet contains 40 hand-sorted, high-quality seeds.

If refrigerated upon receipt, these seeds can be stored for up to a year before you decide to use them.

Celebrating the Sweetgum Tree: Liquidambar styraciflua

Have you ever stepped on a Lego piece barefoot? That’s the reaction that most people have when they step on a sweetgum ball. Those little stickery orbs fall to the ground each fall and will catch the unsuspecting with a stabbing pain on the bottom of the foot. Even if you have on shoes, the hard ping-pong ball sized fruits can turn an ankle or worse. Most homeowners banish the tree from their yards based on the existence of these seedballs alone. They turn into flying missiles when caught by the lawnmower and create a mess on the lawn when left to the next season. So, why do I love this tree?

Botanical classification of sweetgum trees

Liquidambar styraciflua, more commonly known as sweetgum, hazel pine, redgum, satin walnut or alligator wood is a hardwood tree native to North America, parts of Central America and Mexico. It can eventually grow to over 100 feet and live for up to 400 years. The five lobed star-shaped leaves often confuse people who think it may be a maple, however there’s no relation. Some people think they may be related to pine trees too, since the sweetgum also weeps a type of sap that reminds folks of pine resin and they mistakenly think it is from that family. The Liquidambar styraciflua is neither and it is the only one of its genus in the Hamamelidaceae family, which includes witch hazel. Regardless how it is classified, this is a truly unique tree with many positive attributes.

Herbal medicine and historical uses for sweetgum

Native peoples used it medicinally and there’s actually quite a bit of evidence that the uses are legitimate. The sap is antibacterial and antifungal and was often used to treat colds, sore throats and spread on wounds to stop infection. It has expectorant properties and the boiled and cooled sap was used to treat fevers, bronchial infections and croup in babies. They even rolled the sap into balls and placed it in their dog’s noses as a treatment for distemper. The most interesting compound that comes from this tree is shikimic acid which is a main ingredient in the commercial manufacture of the drug, Tamiflu®. So, there’s much to be said for research into modern medicinal uses of this tree. Sweetgum was also a natural dye source for a purple or black color and they also used the twigs as a type of primitive toothbrush. My mom also remembers chewing the resin as a type of chewing gum. She describes the taste as fresh and slightly like pine. It isn’t sweet at all, but not unpleasant. She also remembers older family members saying that they had used the twigs as toothbrushes, so that validates the toothbrush information. Since the sap is antibacterial, it seems that using those twigs probably helped alleviate some of the bacteria that could cause tooth decay in an ere where dental hygiene was not a priority. Children also collected the round balls near the holiday season and painted them for ornaments on the Christmas tree. A concoction of flour and water brushed over the fruits made them appear like snow covered them and they made for cheap and attractive ornaments.

Sweetgum wood uses

Sweetgums have a beautiful, light colored wood that many cabinet makers used as veneer. The pretty wood warped easily, so they laminated it on to a sturdier wood such as ash or maple. The wood takes stain well and was often stained a dark black shade to mimic the much more expensive ebony. Boxes, trunks, crates and plywood were made from sweetgum wood as well.

Sweetgum is an important host plant

My favorite reason for including sweetgum on my property (I have 4 acres) is that it is a host plant for over 30 butterflies and moths. Two of these moths are the large luna and promethea and they need all the help they can get as their numbers are becoming more fragile by the day. The caterpillars are never present in enough numbers to cause any harm to the tree, so let them be if you happen to see them. Hummingbirds stop at the greenish colored blooms on their way north and many songbirds and waterfowl love the seeds that the gumballs drop each fall. Raccoon, squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits also like to feast on the seeds as well.

Growing sweetgum trees

Another positive feature is the fantastic autumn color. Sweetgums have some of the best fall colors of any tree and the range of shades is amazing. Yellows, golds, corals, pinks, reds and deep maroons can display all on the same tree. The trees turn early and hold their leaves a long time, prolonging the show. If you love the color and hate the mess, there are sterile cultivars such as ‘Rotundiloba’ that don’t produce the gumballs. This is great for homeowners with small properties who do not need the extra work. My sweetgum is a seedling that I took from the family farm and so it is one of the basic species. I don’t care that it makes the stickery gumballs since it is planted away from walkways and living areas. Besides, I’ve had it nearly 20 years and it is just starting to produce the fruits. Sweetgums tolerate a wide range of soils and conditions. It prefers sunny a sunny location, slightly acidic, moist, well-drained soil. However, clay soil that is slightly alkaline and dry conditions don’t seem to faze it much either. Make sure to give it plenty of room to grow upwards and avoid situating it near power lines, since it can grow quite tall. Mine is about 20 years old and is over 30 feet tall and it started out as a seedling the size of a matchstick. Also remember to plant your sweetgum away from walkways and foundations as the root system is pretty big and can cause concrete to heave if planted too close.

If you have the room and a planting area that the gumballs won’t cause an issue, this is a wonderful tree to have in your garden.

Shape and Distribution
Sweetgum is a large tree, up to 100 feet tall, with a pyramid-shaped crown. The trunk diameter sometimes exceeds three feet. It grows on a wide range of sites in Illinois, but occurs most frequently on bottomlands in the southern parts of the state.

Interesting Facts
Liquidambar styraciflua is commonly referred to as sweetgum because of the brownish yellow sap it produces when the bark is cut. The name Liquidambar is from the Latin liquidus, meaning fluid or liquid and the Arabic ambar, referring to amber, both being references to the sap. The sweetgum sap is also referred to as American styrax (hence the species name, styraciflua) and some use it as a chewing gum.

Identifying Features

Bark
The bark is dark gray and forms scaly, regular ridges.
Leaves
The leaves are very distinctive. They are alternate, simple and star-shaped, with 5 to 7 points. The margins of the leaves are finely toothed.
Flowers
The male and female flowers are borne on the same tree closely packed into rounded clusters.
Fruits
The fruits are distinctive, spiny, long-stemmed balls that contain many seeds, most of which do not germinate. Songbirds and squirrels eat sweetgum seeds, and the fruits are sometimes painted and used as Christmas decorations. Uses
The wood is hard and durable and is used for furniture, barrels, wooden bowls, cabinets, and interior finishing. In addition to using the sap as chewing gum, Native Americans and settlers used the sap to treat a wide variety of ailments in both humans and domestic animals. Native Americans used the roots and bark to treat skin disorders, diarrhea, fevers and other ailments. Sweetgum is frequently planted as an ornamental.

Sweetgum

This tree is unique with its star shaped leaves and brown gum-ball-shaped fruits. Its fall colors are yellow, red or purple. The wood is heavy, strong and even grained; used for flooring, veneer and cabinets.
Liquidambar styraciflua, commonly called the American sweetgum, sweet-gum, alligator-wood, American-storax, bilsted, red-gum, satin-walnut, or star-leaved gum, is a deciduous tree native to warm temperate areas of eastern North America. Sweetgum is one of the most common hardwoods in the eastern United States. A popular ornamental tree in temperate climates, it is valued for its intense autumn colors, and in its natural habitats, as a timber tree. It is a medium-sized to large tree, growing to 65–115 ft, rarely to 135 ft tall, with a trunk up to 6 ft in diameter and may live to 400 years. It is recognizable by the combination of its five-pointed star-shaped leaves and its hard, spiked fruits.
The star-shaped leaves are 3-5 inches long and 3-7 inches wide with 5-7 sharply pointed lobes. The rich dark green, glossy leaves generally turn brilliant yellow, orange, red, and purple colors in the autumn.
Flowers appear March to May, when leaves are half grown.
The distinctive, hard, dry fruit is 1 – 1 ½ inches diameter and hangs on the branches during the winter. The woody capsules are mostly filled with abortive seeds resembling sawdust. Fallen, opened fruits are often abundant beneath the trees; these have been popularly nicknamed “burr balls” or “gum balls”. The long-persisting fallen spiked fruits can be unpleasant to walk on; sweet gum is banned in some places for this reason.
The bark is light brown tinged with red, deeply fissured, ridges scaly. Another distinctive feature of the tree is the peculiar appearance of its small branches and twigs. The bark attaches itself to these in plates edgewise instead of laterally, and a piece of the leafless branch with the aid of a little imagination readily takes on a reptilian form; indeed, the tree is sometimes called Alligator-wood.
Sweetgum is one of the most important commercial hardwoods in the Southeastern United States. Its wood is bright reddish brown (with the sapwood nearly white), heavy, straight, satiny, and close-grained, but not strong. When cut into planks, it is marked transversely with blackish belts. It takes a beautiful polish, but warps badly in drying. It is used principally for lumber, veneer, plywood, slack cooperage, railroad ties, fuel, and pulpwood. Being readily dyed black, it is sometimes substituted for ebony for such uses as inexpensive picture frames.

Plant of the Week: Sweetgum, Fruitless

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in “Plant of the Week.” Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

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Fruitless Sweetgum
Latin: Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Rotundiloba’

Perfection is not only elusive, its attainment is somewhat subjective. Nurserymen have long sought the perfect tree, and about the time they think they have achieved the goal, problems develop.

On its introduction, the fruitless sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Rotundiloba’) seemed like a contender for the title, but we now know it has some warts.

From many perspectives the sweetgum is a good tree for the urban landscape. It grows fast in almost any soil, has good fall color and has few serious insect or disease problems.

But the typical seedling sweetgum has a flaw – it makes sweetgum balls. I’ve tried to convince people that they should look at sweetgum balls as a resource. When I suggest a favorite arts-and-crafts idea, they always counter that the market for glitter-covered sweetgum ball wreaths is dead. Maybe they’re right.

The answer to the problem of sweetgum balls seemed to have been solved when the fruitless sweetgum began to be talked up in the nursery trade in the mid-1980s. The tree has lustrous dark green leaves with the usual five lobes, but on the fruitless form the lobes are rounded, not pointed.

Fall color is variable on this grafted tree. Some years it will shade more towards the yellow and orange range, other years more towards deep burgundy.

Older trees can reach 50 feet tall with an upright form that tends to be more open and erect than the typical sweetgum. Young trees go through a gawky stage that requires some early attention to pruning to develop a good form.

The tree was resurrected from horticultural oblivion by the famous plantsman, J.C. Raulston (1940 – 1996), the founder and namesake of the Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, N.C. Raulston, a fellow Oklahoman and – as only mothers can explain – a shirt-tail relative of mine, was one of a handful of horticulturists who brought about the new plant craze that swept the world of gardening during the closing years of the 20th century.

J.C. found the tree growing on the campus of William and Mary College in Virginia, apparently a graft from a tree found growing wild in North Carolina in the 30s. The tree was propagated and evaluated for a couple years and then released with the flourish that only J.C. could pull off.

What marked J.C. as different from many plantsmen, is not his willingness to share, but the scope of his sharing. When he discovered a new plant through his extensive travels, he quickly turned the plant into hundreds or thousands of plant starts that were distributed to nurserymen and gardeners throughout the world. Because of his willingness to share and extensive network of contacts, plants could go from rare and unknown to commonplace in a couple years.

Raulston had a restless soul. He traveled extensively around the world and made collecting trips to Europe and Korea. One of his hobbies, visiting every county in the nation (the last I heard he still lacked two in Arkansas), was nearing completion when he was killed in a car accident.

The fruitless sweetgum has not performed quite as well in American landscapes as Raulston predicted. First, it’s not as winter hardy as some northern strains, being cold hardy to only -10 degrees F. This makes it winter hardy throughout Arkansas, but it can winterkill north of St. Louis.

A second problem has been growing a symmetrical tree. Instead of having the cookie-cutter look of trees like Bradford pear, the fruitless sweet gum has a more free form habit. In formal mall plantings where exact duplicates are wanted, this has caused some disappointment.

The fruitless sweetgum should be planted in full sun where it gets some summer moisture. In spring, as new leaves are beginning to form, prune to maintain a straight trunk. Lateral branching will need pruning for the first few years to develop a strong branching system.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist – Ornamentals
Extension News – September 20, 2002

The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.

Q: We recently purchased a brand new home and are extremely happy there. Our only problem is that we inherited a very large sweetgum tree in the back yard. My husband works hard to remove the sweetgum balls, but it seems to be a never-ending task. Is there something we can do to eliminate the production of the sweetgum balls other than removing the tree? The tree is beautiful and offers lots of shade so I wouldn’t mind keeping it, but we absolutely detest the spiny little balls that are covering our back yard.

A: The spiky seed pods of the sweetgum tree are a nuisance to many gardeners.

It is theoretically possible to eliminate the balls each year but it is a difficult process. The chemical ethepon (Florel) releases ethylene gas when it is sprayed onto the tree branches while sweetgum flowers are present in spring.

Ethylene gas is a powerful plant hormone. If the tree is flowering when the chemical is applied, the gas will cause the flowers to drop off. Voila! The tree will be neutered for the year.

The same process can be used to eliminate the fruit on a crabapple, whose progeny might render a sidewalk slippery.

Unfortunately, the entire tree must be sprayed each year and spraying at the right flower stage is critical. Most people find the effort too difficult. If you decide to try, you can purchase .

Snipper is an injectable product that de-balls a sweetgum. It can be used by a homeowner but hiring a certified arborist might be a better solution.

Another alternative for you is to cut down the offending tree and plant a fruitless sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Rotundiloba’) in its place. As you know, the tree is fast-growing and it offers lots of summer sun screen when mature.

sweetgum ball

Tags For This Article: ball, eliminate, ethepon, sweetgum

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