Salute to Sweet Gum

I realize that many lovers of immaculate lawns hate Sweet Gums (Liquidambar styraciflua) because of the numerous prickly seed balls that litter the ground beneath them every fall and winter.  But I would argue that you’re looking at this southeastern tree from the wrong angle.

Have you ever stopped to appreciate the fall color on these trees? Deep maroons, vivid yellow-oranges, and every shade in between take my breath away every autumn. Crush a green leaf, inhale deeply, and your nose fills with the spicy sweet zingy scent that puts the “sweet” in Sweet Gum.

When the trees are a mature size, their presence lends imposing structure to the landscape. A mature specimen attains maximum height and girth on rich alluvial soils. But even in the average backyard, these trees can reach impressive dimensions.

Three Sweet Gum giants contribute to the forest canopy in the wetter parts of my yard. The biggest sits on an alluvial terrace beside the creek on the north side of my yard. It is so wide at the base that it takes three people, arms outstretched, to encircle it. Here’s a photo I took yesterday of the base of the tree:

Mature Sweet Gum trunk

That’s a standard bluebird box fastened to the trunk. Bluebirds raise two broods there every year. This tree is at least 80 feet tall. My books tell me that they can grow to between 100 and 150 feet tall. Here’s a shot I took yesterday of the top two-thirds of this tree:

Mature Sweet Gum — top two-thirds

Many good books on native trees are available. Two that I use often are Guide to Southern Trees by Ellwood S. Harrar and J. George Harrar and Native Trees of the Southeast: An Identification Guide by L. Katherine Kirkman, Claud L. Brown, and Donald J. Leopold. The first book only has line drawings of the trees, but the descriptions  often include nuggets of information I see nowhere else. The second book uses excellent photographs of leaves, fruits, and other pertinent parts, which are very helpful when you’re trying to figure out the identity of a tree.

Sweet Gums add color and structure to mature landscapes. And for those who hate having their lawns sullied by Sweet Gum balls, I ask why are you trying to grow lawn under trees anyway? The grass will never be happy, and neither will the trees.

Mulch beneath trees of all sizes. The mulch should extend on the ground as far as the branches extend. If you do this, the fruits will land on the mulch.

And when a flock of hungry Cedar Waxwings stops in your big Sweet Gum to feed on the seeds within its dangling balls, you’ll be glad you found a way to live with this wonderful native.

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  1. Fringe Tree: Another Piedmont Spring Show-off « Piedmont Gardener
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