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The Monday Garden
Great Americans: Sweetgum

Issue No. 136 - October 31, 2004
by Sue Sweeney

Big, tall trees, towering giants: in the Northeast those words bring quickly to mind oaks, horse chestnuts, tulips and sweet gums. The American sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), a member of the witch hazel family, is every inch a treasure: a tall, handsome, fast-growing hardwood tree to shade a moist, sunny place, prized for its commercially useful hardwood and gum, and beloved by many critters including the (at least to me) elusive yellowed-bellied sap sucker.
Picture: The American sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) can’t be beat for fall color. First Presbyterian Church Stamford, CT October 2004
Our sweet gum has many common names. Some of the nicest ones are redgum, alligator-wood, starleaf-gum, and satin walnut (the wood, when dyed, resembles black walnut). The Latin “Liquidambar" means “liquid amber” referring to the tree’s fragrant sap. The gum has been used since Pre-Columbian times for flavoring and medicine.

Unlike the maples with their numerous cousins and cross-breeds, which make identification as challenging as a Sunday NY Times crossword puzzle, there are only two or three varieties of sweet gums in the world – the American giant and an Asian cousin or two. It’s easy to recognize our sweet gum in all seasons.

First, look for the round seed balls that look like Star Wars’ battle stars. You’ll find the seed balls hanging on sweet gum tree, and on the ground around the tree, most of the year. The only other local tree with a similar seed ball is the sycamore. Both seed balls are favorite boys’ toys, prefect for throwing at each other and sticking down shirts. In boys’ circles, the sycamore seeds are known as the “itchy balls”, and the sweet gum seeds are the “sticky balls”. For grown ups, the sweet gum seeds are great for dried arrangements. Stepping on the seed balls, though, is a bit painful, so it’s best to plant the trees away from paths where people will be walking barefoot.
Picture: American sweet gum seeds balls, First Presbyterian Church Stamford, CT October 2004
Then, check the leaves. The 5- to 7-pointed star shape is unmistakable, as is the glossy texture. The leaf color is handsome from early spring through fall. Indeed, the tree is often planted just for its outstanding fall color – a single tree can cover the range from yellow to red to burgundy.
Pictures: sweet gums leaves First Presbyterian Church Stamford, CT Summer 2004
pictures: sweet gum leaves, First Presbyterian Church Stamford, CT October 2004
The sweet gum’s shape is also distinct. The young ones are conical. The adults are tall, rounded, and spreading. The big ones, from a distance, resemble maples in outline, except they’re too tall to be maples.

Pictures: sweet gum tree form, First Presbyterian Church Stamford, CT Summer 2004; Summer Street, Stamford CT winter 2003

The American sweet gum can be found along the Atlantic Coast from Connecticut to Nicaragua. It’s also planted in Europe. It likes full sun and grows tallest in the moist bottom lands of the South. It’s the perfect tree to soak up extra water in a damp place but give it lots of room. If you should welcome one into your yard, or be lucky enough to get one as a street tree, be advised that they can be overly enthusiastic, so keep an eye on the seedlings. For those out of the tree’s native range: don’t plant it as it can become invasive in moist conditions in Zone 6 through 9.

As far as the critters go, the sweet gum has few pests and attracts many of the good guys. Some of its friends are: cardinals, chickadees, goldfinches, purple finches, mallard ducks, bobwhite quails, sparrows, towhees, and mourning doves, all of whom like the seeds and the habitat. Squirrels and chipmunks also like the seeds; mice and rabbits are known to browse the young stems.

According to the U.S. Forest Service (which seems to be the Liz Smith of hot woodland gossip), beavers are partial to the wood for constructing dams. Since few of us have beavers lurking in the yard planning their next dam, this should not put you off. However, don’t put a sweet gum too close to the house, since the mature trees can drop big limbs in winter storms. Sweet gums, when mature, will kill the grass with their dense shade and shallow roots, so they are best standing guard over the shade garden, cooling the driveway and sidewalk, or at the pond’s or wood’s edge. The only other consideration in site choice is that the trees need neutral to slightly acid soil and, like the red maple, will develop iron chlorosis of the foliage (leaf goes yellow between the veins) if the soil is too alkaline.

Picture: Newly fallen sweet gum seeds balls in the snow at the tree base, First Presbyterian Church Stamford, CT winter 2003
Now, back to the yellow-bellied sapsuckers. Much of the yellow-bellied sapsuckers’ summer range is north of the sweet gums’ range. However, the sapsucker migrates in winter all the way down to Central America, presumably drawn by sweet gums all long the route.

When I was a kid, I never knowingly saw a yellow-bellied sapsucker but the name was handy for insulting others at the playground. I never saw one (off the playground, that is) ‘cause I was looking for the wrong thing. I was expecting a large bird with a strikingly yellow belly (duh!). However, the label misleads; the belly is a bit yellowish but not strikingly so. Look instead for a bird that looks like the hairy and downy woodpeckers but is slightly larger with a white blaze down the wing. Then, you will see lots of these guys, especially during the spring and fall migrations.

Even if you don’t see any, you will know that the yellow-bellied sapsuckers have been around by the parallel rows of little square holes in the sweet gum’s bark. These sneaky guys drill rows of holes, then return, time and again, to drink the oozing sap and the scarf up the insects attracted by the sap. The yellow-bellied sapsuckers are said to come equipped with brush-like tongues particularly useful for this purpose.

From The Monday Garden. Copyright © by Sue Sweeney. Reproduced with permission. 

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