Sweetgum

Sweetgum

(Liquidambar styraciflua L.)

Description

Sweetgum, or redgum, is a deciduous tree in the sweetgum family (Altingiaceae).   It can reach heights of 50 to 80 feet (maximum 150 feet), and may have a deep or shallow rotted depending upon the drainage¹.   Leaves are alternate on the stem and has a distinctive 5-pointed star shaped leaf with serrated margins and palmate venation.  The leaves turn crimson in the fall.  Corky ridges may form distinctive wings on either side of the stem.   Its produces male and female flowers on the same tree (monecious).  It is wind pollinated.  The female flowers are in heads that produce a round, prickly ball (gumballs) when mature¹.    It is considered to be shade intolerant¹. 

 

Liquidambar styraciflua

Leaves and fruit of sweetgum.  @ N. Kurzenko, 2015. CalPhoto³

Liquidambar styraciflua

Fruit of sweetgum.  @ K. Morse, 2016. CalPhoto6

Distribution

Sweetgum ranges from New Jersey to Florida and west to Texas and Arkansas.  It is predominately a bottomland species, but can attain high frequency in the Piedmont of North Carolina and Georgia.  In Maryland it is largely restricted to the coastal plain².   Sweetgum is planted world wide as a street tree.

{Native range of Liquidamber styraciflua}

Native distribution of sweetgum.  USDA²

Wildlife Importance

It is the host plant for luna moth larvae.  Numerous songbirds consume the seeds, in particular the American goldfinch4. 

Economic Importance

Sweetgum is commercially one of the most important hardwood species of the Southeast².   Its wood is used for furniture, cabinets, interior trim, and plywood².  

Threats

Sweetgum is largely resistant to damage, but beavers will girdle the trees and fire may also damage them².  

Interesting Facts

  • The resinous gum produced from the bark was used to make chewing gum4 .  
  • Sweetgum was previously placed in the witch-hazel family (Hamamelidaceae).
  • The Maryland champion sweetgum is in Upper Marlboro with a height of 102 ft and circumference of 209 inches (= 5.5 ft diameter) as measured in 20195.

References

  1. USDA-NRCS Plant Fact Sheet:  Sweetgum
  2. USDA-Forest Service  Silvics Vol. 2  Hardwoods:   Liquidambary styraciflua
  3. CalPhotos:  Liquidambar styraciflua leaves
  4. North Carolina State Extension:  Liquidambar sturaciflua
  5. Maryland State Champion Trees
  6. CalPhotos–Liquidambar styraciflua

Contributed by J. Hull

Towson University Glen Arboretum

Towson University

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