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Liquidambar styraciflua (American sweetgum)

Liquidambar styraciflua (American sweetgum)

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Liquidambar styraciflua, commonly known as sweet gum, is a tree that embodies the essence of autumn's brilliance. Native to the eastern United States and introduced to the UK in the 17th century, this deciduous beauty has captured the hearts of nature enthusiasts and landscapers alike.

Seasonal spectacle of Liquidambar styraciflua

As temperatures begin to cool in the fall, the sweet gum tree transforms into a riot of colors. Its large, lobed leaves, reminiscent of maples, transition from their summer green to a dazzling palette of oranges, reds, yellows, and even purples. This remarkable display of autumn leaf color makes the sweet gum one of the finest trees for capturing the season's magic.

Sweet Gum towering presence

The sweet gum tree is known for its impressive stature. It can reach ultimate heights ranging from 10 to more than 20 meters, taking approximately 15 to 20 years to mature fully. While the species itself is a tall-growing deciduous tree that demands space to flourish, horticulturists have developed numerous cultivars with unique features. These cultivars offer various autumn leaf colors, variegated foliage, narrower or columnar habits, and smaller overall sizes. In recent years, sterile cultivars have been bred, particularly useful when the sweet gum is planted as a specimen tree in lawns, as the hard, prickly seed balls can be uncomfortable underfoot.

The slim and elegant silhouette

Among these cultivars, 'Slender Silhouette' stands out as the narrowest variety, forming a tight column just 1-1.5 meters wide. Other notable cultivars such as 'Lane Roberts' and 'Worplesdon' have been honored with the prestigious RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) Award of Garden Merit.

Cultivation and soil preferences

Growing the sweet gum tree is relatively straightforward. It thrives in good, fertile soil that retains moisture while ensuring proper drainage. However, it does not favor chalky soils. Planting it in full sun is essential to bring out its most vibrant autumn colors. Once established, sweet gum trees display tolerance to occasional drought and even periodic flooding. For young trees, protection from frost may be necessary.

Bark, foliage, and fruit

One of the sweet gum tree's unique features is its attractive, corky bark, a year-round ornament. During spring and summer, its large, deeply lobed star-shaped leaves maintain a glossy, mid-green appearance. However, in the fall, the sweet gum truly shines, with its foliage turning fiery shades of red, orange, yellow, and luxurious purple, often lingering on the tree well into December. The tree's globed fruit, known as burr balls, starts fresh and green in summer, darkening in autumn and persisting through winter.

Liquidambar styraciflua historical roots

The sweet gum tree's history is intertwined with its native regions in the humid, swampy areas of America. The name "Liquidambar" was bestowed upon it by the Spanish herbalist Francisco Hernandez, inspired by its aromatic gum. John Bannister, the renowned British plant collector, introduced this captivating species to England in 1681.

Among deciduous trees, the sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) reigns supreme as a symbol of autumn's splendor. With its magnificent autumn foliage, distinct features, and historical significance, it has rightfully earned its place in the hearts and landscapes of nature enthusiasts across the world. Plant one, and you'll have a front-row seat to the magic of autumn's ever-changing hues.