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American Sweetgum Trees: Non-Fruiting Type

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Sweetgums offer a medley of fall foliage colors.

Sweetgums offer a medley of fall foliage colors.

David Beaulieu

Taxonomy of American Sweetgum Trees:

Plant taxonomy classifies American sweetgum trees (also spelled "sweet gum") as Liquidambar styraciflua. The sweetgum tree I recommend is Liquidambar styraciflua 'Rotundiloba,' a sterile, non-fruiting culitivar.

Plant Type:

American sweetgum trees are deciduous trees, indigenous to the southeastern U.S.

Characteristics:

American sweetgum trees bear leaves shaped like stars. The leaves provide excellent fall foliage color: in some cases, at the peak of the fall foliage season, some leaves may be red, others purple, others yellow, others orange -- all on the same sweetgum tree! On some trees, the branches are "winged," as on winged euonymus (burning bush), displaying corky flanges. Most people consider their seed pods (or "fruits," "balls," "gumballs," "capsules") to be messy, so I recommend the fruitless 'Rotundiloba.' Rotundiloba grows 60'-70' tall with a spread not even half that, which helps give it a narrowly pyramidal form.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zones for American Sweetgum Trees:

American Sweetgum Trees are best grown in planting zones 5-9. They are drought-tolerant trees once established.

Sun and Soil Requirements:

Grow American sweetgum trees in full sun and in loamy soil that is on the acidic side.

American Sweetgum Trees: When You Can't Find the "No-Gumballs" Variety:

Although most find the spikey pods (which look like they belong on a medieval weapon!) messy, they do have their uses. Crafters use them in decorations, and some gardeners report success using them as a "pest-control mulch" (critters don't like stepping on their spines). Wildlife (birds and rodents) eat the seeds. If you can't find the pod-less 'Rotundiloba,' but still wish to grow American sweetgum trees, plant them in an area where you won't have to bother cleaning up the pods. For those with sufficient room on their properties, one option may be to incorporate "messy" sweetgum trees into woodland gardens.

Outstanding Features of American Sweetgum Trees:

American sweetgum trees stand up well to urban pollution and are fast-growing trees. But such practical issues aside, their best feature has to be their fall foliage, which is not only rich, but also diverse.

Name Origin of Sweetgum Trees, Other Fall Foliage Specimens:

American sweetgum trees do yield a type of gum called "liquid amber," thus accounting for both the genus name and the common name. According to the Illinois State Museum, "The sweetgum sap is also referred to as American styrax (hence the specific epithet, styraciflua) and some use it as a chewing gum." Meanwhile, "Rotundiloba" refers to the leaves' rounded lobes on the fruitless cultivar.

More on Fall Foliage Trees:

Ash Trees
Quaking Aspens
Autumn Blaze Maples
Beech Trees
Birches
Sumac
Maples
Japanese Maples
Dogwoods
Ginkgo Biloba
Oak Trees
Shagbark Hickory
Tulip Trees
Sunburst Honey Locusts

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