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TREES & Plants

Sweet-gum

Known for its unique star-shaped leaves with outstanding yellow, red, and purple fall color. Sweet-gum 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.   

Botanical name: 
Liquidambar styraciflua
All Common Names: 
Sweet-gum, American sweet-gum, Sweet gum
Family (English): 
Witch Hazel
Family (Botanic): 
Hamamelidaceae
Tree or Plant Type: 
  • Tree
Foliage: 
  • Deciduous (foliage falls off)
Native Locale: 
  • Illinois
  • North America
Hardiness Zones: 
  • Zone 5
  • Zone 6
  • Zone 7
  • Zone 8
  • Zone 9
Growth Rate: 
  • Medium
  • Fast
Light Exposure: 
  • Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)
Tolerances: 
  • Wet sites
  • Occasional flooding
  • Road salt
Soil Preference: 
  • Acid soil
  • Moist, well-drained soil
Flower Color & Fragrance: 
  • Inconspicuous
  • Other
Size Range: 
  • Large tree (more than 40 feet)
Shape or Form: 
  • Oval
  • Pyramidal
  • Rounded
Landscape Uses: 
  • Specimen
  • Shade
Time of Year: 
  • Mid spring
  • Mid fall
More Information: 

Size & Form

60 to 75 feet high and 40 to 60 deet wide.  In forest grown habitat it can reach 80 to 120 feet high.

Young trees are symetrically pyramidal changing to open, rounded crowns with age.

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.

Native geographic location and habitat

Native to Eastern United States, from Southwestern Connecticut to Florida.

Attracts birds & butterflies

Overwintering seeds attract many birds.

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 kalidescope 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 

 Moraine (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.