With autumn comes a parade of riotous hues. From deep reds to warm oranges to flushed purples, color is in the air—and on the branches, and on the ground, especially if you’re lucky enough to have sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) in your yard. This native North American tree’s common name comes from the aromatic gum that seeps from its wounds. Pyramidal in shape during its infancy, sweetgum slowly grows into an open oval as it matures. Its glossy green leaves are toothed at the edges and scented when crushed. Sweetgum’s brilliant fall foliage is a profusion of oranges, reds, yellows, and purples.
Common name: Sweetgum
Botanical name: Liquidambar styraciflua
Plant type: Tree
Zones: 5 to 9
Height: 60 to 80 feet
• Sun: Full sun
• Soil: Average, fertile, well-drained
• Moisture: Medium
• Mulch: Mulch to preserve moisture in the soil and prevent weeds.
• Pruning: None needed.
• Fertilizer: None needed.
• By seed or by cuttings.
Pests and diseases
• No major insect or disease problems, although borers, caterpillars, scale, and webworms may be an issue.
• Wood rot, leaf spots, and bleeding canker may occur.
• Avoid planting sweetgum in alkaline soils, as it causes an iron deficiency in the tree.
• L. styraciflua looks great as part of a woodland garden, as a street tree, or as a specimen.
• Plant sweetgum in a large area with plenty of room to grow.
• The tree’s fruit may be a nuisance if you plant sweetgum near a street or other heavily trafficked area.
• Sweetgum begins to produce seeds when it is 20 to 30 years old and will continue until it is at least 150 years old.
All in the family
• Liquidambar is a genus of four species of deciduous trees from East and Southwest Asia, North America, and Mexico.
• The trees are cultivated especially for their striking foliage and their graceful upright, open habit.
• The gum from sweetgum trees has been used in chewing gum, flavorings, incense, and perfumes.
Where to buy
• J.L. Hudson, Seedsman, La Honda, CA, www.jlhudsonseeds.net
• Shooting Star Nursery, Georgetown, KY, 866-405-7979, www.shootingstarnursery.com
• Stokes Tropicals, Jeanerette, LA, 866-478-2502, www.stokestropicals.plants.com
(Text by Elyse Lucas, photo courtesy of Kemper Center for Home Gardening at the Missouri Botanical Garden)