Posts Tagged Sweet Gum

Sweet Gum Season


Autumn deposits after a windy day.

We are deep into seed season here on our five acres of green (now mostly brown) chaos. Strong north winds from a recent cold front made that abundantly clear, depositing an array of leaves and seeds on our front deck (and our back deck, and everywhere else for that matter).

See all the tiny bits all over the deck? I learned today that they are aborted seeds of native sweet gum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua). And thank goodness, I thought. If sweet gums produced fertile seeds that abundantly, here in the Piedmont region of North Carolina we would all be living amid sweet gum forests, likely to the exclusion of most other species.

In the photo above, I think I can see two or three fertile sweet gum seeds. Like many of our other native tree seeds, sweet gum seeds have “wings” that allow them to float far from mother trees on autumn breezes. I’m fairly certain that one fertile sweet gum seed in the picture is lying just above the pine needle bundle. Two others may or may not be in the upper right corner of the shot. It’s too fuzzy for me to be certain. A maple seed lies toward the bottom of the photo, and a seed from a tulip poplar lies above and to the right of the pine needle bundle. A discarded reddened sweet gum leaf lies among its tree’s progeny.

Sweet gums are noted for their abundance in the southeastern US. They are considered to be an early colonizer of abandoned fields and other open areas, joining loblolly pines as one of the tree species that overtops the grasses and wildflowers that first overtake open land. That process is called old field succession.

















In my yard, autumn color of sweet gum leaves ranges from deep maroon to scarlet to shades of orange-yellow. I love the red ones. Folks new to the area who don’t know trees often confuse these leaves with those of maple trees, especially red maples. To my eye, they look nothing alike. To teach novices how to tell the difference, my advice is always the same: use your nose. Crunch up a leaf in your hand and inhale. If your nose fills with a refreshing spicy scent, you’re holding a sweet gum leaf. Maple leaves give off no such fragrance when crushed.

Sweet gum’s genus name, Liquidambar, translates roughly as liquid or fluid amber, referring to the fragrant juice or gum that exudes from this tree. Its species name, styraciflua, translates to “flowing with storax,” storax being an old term for plant resin.

The earliest published record of this species was written by a Spanish naturalist, who observed it growing in the New World. The tree’s range includes Mexico and parts of Central America, and the tree was utilized by Aztec tribes. Its Nahuatl name is Ocotzocuahuitl, which translates to tree (cuahuitl) that gives pine (ocotl) resin (tzotl). I would agree with these Native Americans that sweet gum resin does smell similar to that of pine trees. Another Spaniard described receiving as gifts hollow reeds filled with dried herbs (probably tobacco) and sweet-smelling liquid amber from Maya tribesmen. When lighted as demonstrated by these Native Americans, the reeds were reported to emit a pleasant scent.

Sweet gum wood has many commercial uses. It is a source of plywood, flooring, and crates, for example. And the light-colored wood is favored by certain Asian markets that use it to make chopsticks.

A 90+ foot double-trunk sweet gum that grows on our land.

Sweet gum fruits are the spiky balls that hang from branches in great abundance. At some point every autumn after the balls have ripened and turned brown and hard, tiny compartments inside them release thousands upon thousands of seeds, mostly infertile. On windless late autumn days, I often hear the seeds falling softly onto dry leaves on the ground, sounding like a gentle rain. A source I read notes that goldfinches, purple finches, and squirrels eat the seeds, which I’ve seen. But I’ve also watched migrating flocks of red-winged blackbirds swarm sweet gum trees to pry seeds from dangling balls.

I know that many homeowners despise those spiky sweet gum balls, often complaining that they clutter green lawns and damage unwary bare feet when walked on. I think the easy fix for these issues is to respect the species instead of arguing with it. Non-native lawns do not contribute to the environmental health of our struggling planet. Replace the lawn you’re trying to grow beneath sweet gums and other trees with what is supposed to be there — leaves and other organic matter — the materials you find when walking through a forest. As for unwary feet, I’ll admit that walking across a big deposit of sweet gum balls can be tricky. But they don’t stay hard and spiky forever. In my yard, they have usually softened by early summer, eventually breaking down into the soil.

Over a dozen canopy-sized sweet gums grace parts of our five acres. When the spiky balls drop in early spring, I try to avoid walking on them. When I must traverse a gum-ball-carpeted area, I use a walking stick to help me maintain my balance. It’s a simple compromise that I’m happy to make in exchange for this great source of food for native wildlife, prolonged spectacular fall color for human appreciation, and a quick inhalation of spicy leaf juice during the growing season when I grab and crush one as I traverse the landscape.

Thousands of sweet gum balls adorn the 90-foot giant in our yard.



All Fall Down

Golden leaves of Halesia diptera carpet the ground

It happens so fast this time of year. One moment the forest is ablaze with vivid leaves that dance in the lightest breeze. The next moment the color moves from branches to forest floor, leaves settling at the bases of parent trees, creating patchworks of color for feet to kick up during crisp autumn walks. But the bright leaf carpet is fleeting, quickly morphing to browns and rusts, as if to match the starkness of bare branches above.

Different tree species move through this cycle at varying rates. Leaves of Ashes and Black Cherries in my yard go from green to brown and abandon their branches in mid-September, seemingly eager to begin their winter rest. Tulip Poplar leaves turn bright yellow next, and begin to drift to the ground (along with thousands of seeds) about the time the Red Maples and Sweet Gum leaves are painting themselves gold, pumpkin orange, and garnet red.

Some trees drop their leaves over the course of several weeks. Some seem to receive a signal (perhaps the change in daylight?) that causes them to shrug off their leaves all at once, leaving carpets of color at their feet. That’s what my Halesia diptera did a few days ago, as you can see in the above photo. Wonder Spouse used the opportunity to create a new fall header for my blog.

The Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) that grow along my creek recently cast off their gold and brown leaves simultaneously, creating quite a colorful, crunchy carpet on my floodplain as you can see here:

Sycamore leaves carpet my floodplain

I love these trees best in winter, when their magnificent trunks glow in weakened sunshine.

The compound leaves of the young Black Walnut (Juglans nigra) on my hill turn a sickly greenish yellow mostly; their weight causes them to stick close together near the base of the tree like this:

Black Walnut leaves tend to collect near the base of the tree

Here’s a closer view of some of the leaves:

Yellow-green compound leaves of Black Walnut

Sweet Gum leaves end up blowing everywhere, mixing in with the leaves of other species. Here are a few examples that turned my favorite rich garnet hue:

Garnet Sweet Gum leaves

Finally for today, I want to show you autumn leaves of three of my deciduous Magnolia specimens. First up, the fallen leaves of Umbrella Magnolia (Magnolia tripetala). This native of moist forests of the Piedmont and Mountains grows along my creek. I rescued it from a similar setting on a friend’s land that was slated for the bulldozer. Although its leaves are not as large as Bigleaf Magnolia (M. macrophylla), you can see how the Umbrella Magnolia leaves dominate the forest floor:

Tobacco-gold leaves of Umbrella Magnolia

My two cultivars of Cucumber Magnolia not only bloom at different times, they also drop their leaves at different times. Leaves of M. acuminata var. ‘Butterflies’ turn briefly pale yellow, then brown and fall quickly in mid-October, sticking close to the base of the tree, as you can see here:

Fallen leaves of M. acuminata var. ‘Butterflies’

The older cultivar of this species that I grow – M. acuminata var ‘Elizabeth’ — not only blooms later, but also retains its rich gold-and-brown leaves much longer. As I type this, Elizabeth has not yet released her bright cloak of autumn color, as shown in this close-up of a few branches here:

M. acuminata var. ‘Elizabeth’ still retains her autumnal splendor

Always the last to relinquish their hold on autumn are the native oaks. They only began to color up a couple of weeks ago, and only a few of their leaves have fallen. It will be late November, some years even mid-December, before my mighty oak canopy trees stand starkly naked against a wintry sky.

That’s OK by me. It gives me a reason to postpone raking. After all, there’s no reason to do it more than once, right?

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Early Autumn at the NC Zoo

Sweet Gum fall color at the NC Zoo

I have been an avid supporter of  the North Carolina Zoo since it opened a few decades ago. It is located in the middle of the state, about an hour’s drive due west from my house. Although the leaves are barely turning where I live, in Asheboro, the home of the NC Zoo, autumn was definitely beginning to show itself.

Asheboro, NC is located on textbook-gorgeous southeastern Piedmont terrain, and the horticultural staff at the NC Zoo has done a spectacular job of enhancing the native vegetation on the site with additional plantings that enrich the exhibits and beautify the grounds. I admit it freely: I go to the NC Zoo to see the plants more than the animals — although the animals are quite impressive too.

The Sweet Gums (Liquidambar styraciflua) were really starting to redden nicely. Wonder Spouse took the photo above; he also extracted the fall banner image at the top of this blog from this photo. I never grow weary of that rich maroon they often display this time of year.

Acorns from numerous Chestnut Oaks (Quercus montana) littered the Piedmont hills that shelter the Zoo’s exhibits. And I spotted a native Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) with branches weighed down by numerous golden-orange fruits. Wonder Spouse was kind enough to take a picture of them for me:

Persimmon fruits almost ripe for the picking

Don’t try eating these tempting-looking fruits until after the first hard frost, unless you like the inside of your mouth to feel permanently puckered.

One of the coolest things the horticultural staff has accomplished lately is the planting of the constructed wetland they built adjacent to the parking lot for the North America section of the Zoo. Much science and engineering went into building this wetland, which is designed to serve as a filter system for rainwater runoff from the parking lot while simultaneously educating the public about the importance and beauty of our native wetlands.

I was blown away by the obvious vigor of this man-made wetland. The native plants that are helping to filter runoff look very happy, as do the native animals that have found their way to this spot:

Turtles bask in early October sunshine

The horticultural staff has planted many of my favorite moisture-loving native plants along the edges of the wetland, including Scarlet Rosemallow (Hibiscus coccineus), whose large red flowers always look to me like botanical satellite dishes. See what I mean here:

Scarlet Rosemallow

The Pickerel Weed in the wetland is spectacular. I wrote about my sad little specimen here. But this is what it looks like when it’s really happy:

Happy Pickerel Weed in the Zoo’s wetland

A member of the Zoo’s horticultural staff overheard me admiring these gorgeous Pickerel Weeds, and he confided that the staff had been forced to water the plants most of this past summer. Asheboro experienced the same severe drought that my yard endured. The constructed wetland dried up, and supplemental water was added to keep the new plantings alive until the rains returned. Water levels are still low, but they are high enough now to keep the plantings happy.

I’ll leave you with three final images of this gorgeous wetland. All the photo’s in today’s blog entry were taken by ace photographer Wonder Spouse. I think these three would make mind-blowingly difficult jigsaw puzzles.

Here’s a shot that features some healthy native cattails in the foreground:

Cattails, Pickerel Weeds, and friends

This shot reminds me of a painting by Monet. Water lilies are backed by Pickerel Weeds:

Monet would have loved this photo

And finally, here’s a wider shot that shows you more of the water lilies, Pickerel Weeds, sedges, and other native plants:

Man-made tranquility

The Zoo’s constructed wetland features several wooden walkways that protrude into the wetland, so that visitors can get closer to these wonderful plants. Besides the turtles, we also saw a few ducks, and numerous frogs. In summer, I imagine colorful dragonflies also animated this special spot.

I have promised myself that I will return to this wetland during the other three seasons. I imagine that winter snows, new spring growth, and summer’s full green vigor will provide additonal perspectives on this landscape. Autumn has already muted the colors and textures of this wetland a bit. I like the look of the still-blooming flowers among the browning foliage.

The signals are clear: seize the waning sunlight while you can, before winter’s silent embrace makes us long for spring’s color and song.

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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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