sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
SCIENTIFIC SYNONYMS: There are no scientific synonyms for
CONFIRMATION STATUS: Confirmed.
TAXONOMY: The currently accepted scientific name for sweetgum is
Liquidambar styraciflua L. Two forms of sweetgum are recognized in
horticulture. The round-lobed American sweetgum, Liquidambar
styraciflua forma rotundiloba Rehd., has three to five short, rounded
lobes on the leaves. Weeping American sweetgum, Liquidambar
styraciflua forma pendula Rehd., has pendulous branches forming an
almost columnar head. There are no recognized subspecies or varieties.
NATIVE STATUS: Native, United States.
GENERAL BOTANICAL CHARACTERISTICS: Sweetgum is a
medium to large, native, long-lived, deciduous tree that reaches heights
of 50 to 150 feet (15-45 m) at maturity. It has a straight stem and a long
pyramidal/ conical crown, especially when young, while mature trees have
crowns that are round and spreading. The brown gray-bark is deeply fur-
rowed into narrow scaley plates or rough rounded ridges. Twigs are med-
ium textured, shiny green to yellow-brown, usually with apparent corky
outgrowths, particularly when fast growing. The terminal bud is large and
is usually sticky, covered with green to orange-brown, shiny scales. Leaves
are alternate, simple, palmately veined, orbicular, 4 to 6 inches across with
5 to 7 lobes (look like stars), and have a finely serrated margin. Its long-
petioled, star-shaped leaves and five long-pointed, saw-toothed lobes make
sweet- gum easily recognizable. Leaves are shiny green above and pubes-
cent in the axils of the veins below, fragrant when crushed. Sweetgum is
monoecious with the male flowers in several clusters and the female flowers
hanging at the end of the same slender stalk capped with a globe-shaped,
spherical head. Both male and female flowers are small, bright yellow-green
(tinged with red) and not showy, appear in early to mid-spring. The ball-
shaped spiny "gumball" fruits are a woody brown spherical cluster of cap-
sules, 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter with openings in the surface that re-
lease 2 seeds from each capsule. The fruit matures in the fall and persists
throughout the winter.
REGENERATION PROCESSES: Sweetgum produces an abundance of
lightweight seed. The tree begins to produce seed when 20 to 30 years old,
and crops remain abundant for 150 years. Fair seed crops are produced
each year, with bumper crops every 2 to 3 years. Under conditions of full
sunlight and rich moist soil, each fruit may average as many as 50 sound
seeds. Seed is primarily dispersed by wind; the maximum dispersal dis-
tance recorded was 600 feet (183 m) but ordinarily 96 percent of the seed
fall within 200 feet (61 m) of the point of release.
Sweetgum is capable of sprouting until it is approximately 50 years old.
Although sweetgum seedlings reach a height of 4.5 feet (1.4 m) in 3 to 5
years, sprouts often reach this height in one growing season. Ten-year
old sprouts frequently have the same size and appearance as 18- to 20-
year-old seedlings in the same stand.
SITE CHARACTERISTICS: Sweetgum is very tolerant of different soils
and sites but grows best on the rich, moist, alluvial clay and loamy soils of
SUCCESSIONAL STATUS: Sweetgum is classified as shade intolerant.
In pure stands on bottomland sites, young sweetgum is able to endure some
shade and crowding. With increase in age the tree becomes less tolerant of
competition. Following natural decrease in the canopy, enough sunlight
reaches the ground to permit an understory stand to develop. Although
sweetgum is an early invader, it seldom becomes a dominant species.
SEASONAL DEVELOPMENT: Sweetgum flowers appear from March to
May, depending on latitude and weather. The fruit ripens from September
to November; the fruit often persists through the entire winter.
GENERAL DISTRIBUTION: Sweetgum grows from Connecticut south-
ward throughout the East to central Florida and eastern Texas. It is found
as far west as Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma and as far north as south-
ern Illinois. It has been planted in California. It also grows in scattered loca-
tions in northeastern and central Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador,
Honduras, and Nicaragua. It is cultivated in Hawaii.
SKY MEADOWS DISTRIBUTION:
Tree specimens can be found on trails marked in red.
Appalachian Trail/Old Trail
South Ridge/North Ridge
Rolling Meadows/ Lost Mountain
HABITAT TYPES AND PLANT COMMUNITIES: Throughout the
Piedmont Plateau, sweetgum shows good growth on river and stream
bottoms and shows considerable potential on many upland sites.
Common tree associates of sweetgum include spruce pine (Pinus glabra),
Virginia pine (Pinus virginiana), red maple (Acer rubrum), box elder (Acer
negundo), pignut, shellbark, shagbark, and mockernut hickories (Carya
glabra, Carya laciniosa, Carya ovata, Carya tomentosa), and sugarberry
(Celtis laevigata). Common understory associates include dogwood
(Cornus spp.), alder (Alnus spp.), and eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis).
IMPORTANCE AND USES: Sweetgum has moderate value as a winter
browse. In the Oconee National Forest of Georgia, sweetgum was lightly to
moderately browsed by white-tailed deer during the fall and winter. The
seeds are eaten by birds, squirrels, and chipmunks.
Sweetgum snags are used as breeding sites for a variety of birds and
The beautiful red and yellow color variations of sweetgum's autumn foliage
make it highly prized as an ornamental.
Sweetgum stem cuttings have been successfully planted for streambank
protection and reclamation of sites disturbed by coal strip mining.
Sweetgum is primarily used for lumber, veneer, and plywood. The lumber
is used to make boxes, crates, furniture, interior trim, and millwork. The
veneer is used primarily for crates, baskets, and interior woodwork. Sweet-
gum is also used for crossties and fuel, and small amounts go into fencing,
excelsior, and pulpwood.
Medicinally, sweetgum is known as "copalm balsam" and the resinous gum
is used extensively in Mexico and Europe as a substitute for storax. Various
ointments and syrups are prepared from the resinous gum and are used in
the treatment of dysentery and diarrhea. The gum is sometimes chewed by
children, and it is also used as a perfuming agent in soap.
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