Sweet-gum is known for its unique star-shaped leaves with outstanding yellow, red, and purple fall color. It can be an excellent shade tree in the right location, away from foot traffic where the spiky "gumball" fruits will not be an annoyance. If an appropriate space is available, check out the cold-hardy cultivar, 'Moraine', which is recommended for northern Illinois.
This plant has some cultivated varieties. Go to list of cultivars.
- North America
- Residential and parks
- Large tree (more than 40 feet)
- Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)
- Zone 5
- Zone 6
- Zone 7
- Zone 8
- Zone 9
- Acid soil
- Moist, well-drained soil
- Wet soil
- Intolerant of pollution
- Marginally hardy
- Messy fruit/plant parts
- Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)
- Fall color
- Mid fall
- Late fall
- Game birds
- Insect pollinators
- Small mammals
Tree & Plant Care
A large tree where ample room is provided.
Best in full sun to partial shade in deep, moist, bottomland soils. |
Transplant difficult due to shallow, fleshy root system. Slow to establish.
Because of wide geographical range, it is important to use northern nursery sources.
Disease, pests, and problems
Iron chlorosis can be a problem in high pH soils.
Disease, pest, and problem resistance
Tolerant of black walnut toxicity.
Native geographic location and habitat
Native to Eastern United States, from Southwestern Connecticut to Florida.
Bark color and texture
Mature trees have a grayish brown, deeply furrowed bark with narrow ridges.
Some trees develop interesting corky ridges on 2 year old stems.
Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture
Alternate, maple-like, star shaped leaves are 5 to 7 lobed and 4 to 8 inches long and wide with serrate margins.
The dark to medium glossy green leaves change to a kaleidoscope of yellow, red, purple tones in the fall.
Leaves have a camphor-like smell when crushed.
Flower arrangement, shape, and size
Monoecious. Non-showy, drooping female flowers are yellowish-green in early spring.
Male flowers are upright, reddish-green in terminal panicles.
Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions
Gumball-like, 1 to 1.5 inch, spiny fruits change from green to brown in late summer and fall.
Fruits are a dehiscent capsule and persist into winter.
Considered messy especially near sidewalks and patios.
Cultivars and their differences
Slender Silhouette (Liquidambar styraciflua 'Slender Silhouette'): A narrow, columnar form, growing 6 to 8 feet wide and 60 feet high.