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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, sweetgum
Family (English): 
Witch Hazel
Family (Botanic): 
Hamamelidaceae
Tree or Plant Type: 
  • Tree
Native Locale: 
  • Chicago area
  • Illinois
  • North America
Planting Site: 
  • Residential and parks
Landscape Uses: 
  • Specimen
  • Shade
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
  • Zone 6
  • Zone 7
  • Zone 8
  • Zone 9
Soil Preference: 
  • Acid soil
Acid Soils: 
  • Prefers
Alkaline Soils: 
  • Intolerant
Salt Spray: 
  • Tolerant
Soil Salt: 
  • Tolerant
Drought Conditions: 
  • Tolerant
Poor Drainage: 
  • Tolerant
Planting Considerations: 
  • Messy fruit/plant parts
  • Intolerant of pollution
  • Marginally hardy
Foliage: 
  • Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)
Ornamental Interest: 
  • Fall color
Time of Year: 
  • Mid spring
  • Mid fall
Flower Color & Fragrance: 
  • Inconspicuous
  • Other
Shape or Form: 
  • Oval
  • Pyramidal
  • Round
Growth Rate: 
  • Fast
Transplants Well: 
  • Yes
Wildlife: 
  • Game birds
  • Insect pollinators
  • Sapsuckers
  • Small mammals
  • Songbirds
More Information: 

Size & Form

60 to 75 feet high and 40 to 60 feet wide.  In a forest 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.

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.

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.