Sweet-gum

Sweet-gum has brilliant fall color.

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.

Botanical name:

Liquidambar styraciflua

All Common Names:

sweet-gum, American sweet-gum, sweet gum, sweetgum

Family (English):

Witch Hazel

Family (Botanic):

Hamamelidaceae

Tree or Plant Type:

  • Tree

Foliage:

  • Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)

Native Locale:

  • Illinois,
  • North America

Planting Site:

  • Residential and parks

Landscape Uses:

  • Shade tree,
  • Specimen

Size Range:

  • Large tree (more than 40 feet)

Mature Height:

60-75 feet

Mature Width:

40-75 feet

Light Exposure:

  • Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)

Hardiness Zones:

  • Zone 5 (Chicago),
  • Zone 6,
  • Zone 7,
  • Zone 8,
  • Zone 9

Soil Preference:

  • Acid soil,
  • Moist, well-drained soil,
  • Wet soil

Acid Soils:

  • Prefers

Alkaline Soils:

  • Intolerant

Salt Spray:

  • Tolerant

Soil Salt:

  • Tolerant

Drought Conditions:

  • Tolerant

Poor Drainage:

  • Tolerant

Planting Considerations:

  • Intolerant of pollution,
  • Marginally hardy,
  • Messy fruit/plant parts

Ornamental Interest:

  • Fall color

Season of Interest:

  • Mid fall,
  • Late fall

Flower Color & Fragrance:

  • Inconspicuous,
  • Other

Shape or Form:

  • Oval,
  • Pyramidal,
  • Round

Growth Rate:

  • Moderate,
  • Fast

Transplants Well:

  • Yes

Wildlife:

  • Game birds,
  • Insect pollinators,
  • Sapsuckers,
  • Small mammals,
  • Songbirds

More Information:

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.

Sweet-gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
Sweet-gum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
photo: John Hagstrom

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 

Emerald Sentinel® sweet-gum (Liquidambar styraciflua 'Clydesform'): A narrow-pyramidal shape; grows 30 feet high and 12 feet wide.  Fall color yellow-orange.

Moraine sweet-gum (Liquidambar styraciflua 'Moriane'). An upright, oval habit with excellent red fall color. It is faster growing and a more cold hardy cultivar appropriate for the Chicago region. 

Slender Silhouette sweet-gum (Liquidambar styraciflua 'Slender Silhouette'):  A narrow, columnar form, growing 6 to 8 feet wide and 60 feet high.

Location of Liquidambar styraciflua (Sweet-gum) at the Arboretum