2016

 
 

Sweetgum, or Liquidamber styraciflua, is a medium to large deciduous tree that, quite often, is loved or hated. Those who love them do so because of the impressive form and reliable autumn display, which is dazzling. But on the down side it is often deplored owing to the copious quantities of spiky little balls that are so heavily produced in late summer and create such litter. For those fond of walking barefoot in the grass, stepping on a gumball would be memorable.

The American sweetgum is native to North America and grows from the northeastern United States down to Mexico and Central America, generally at lower altitudes. This immense range of climates and soils makes sweetgum one of the most adaptable trees in the world. And although there are some excellent Asian species, it is the American sweetgum that is most commonly grown world-wide.

In cultivation, a Sweetgum generally reaches 60 feet, though in the forests of North America it may exceed a hundred feet. A sweetgum has an imposing pyramidal form which improves with maturity as the major branches become more horizontal and massive, eventually spreading to 25 feet. These dimensions require a larger plot of land than most urban gardens but they also render it one of the finest shade trees available.

Its chief asset, however, is the foliage. The leaves are 5 to 7 lobed, pointy like a maple. They are a deep green in spring and summer but for autumn they turn purple, red, and yellow. This display is easily the rival of maples and ashes.

Sweetgums are also tough and well-adapted to street plantings though the debris from the gumballs may be a nuisance. They also tolerate wet sites quite well in addition to the well-drained ones. They will thrive on acidic to neutral soils but not alkaline and are best grown in full sun. Sweetgums can also live for several centuries which renders them an excellent Heritage choice,

And though the gum balls may detract from its appeal in the well tended garden, they would be less noticeable on more naturalized sites and rural properties. And there are now numerous cultivars which produce few, if any, gumballs.

Sweetgums may be a little marginal for Canada, best perhaps for Lower Ontario. But it will thrive across most of the eastern US, across the UK and does well in temperate Australia and New Zealand.

Surprisingly sweetgums are not often found in the average nursery, but the species and the cultivars are more likely to be found in the better tree nurseries.

One standout cultivar is the 'Rotundiloba' sweetgum, or Liquidambar styraciflua 'Rotundiloba' and the Asian cousin, Formosa sweetgum, Liquidambar formosana, both excellent choices.

Sweetgum

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