Sweet Gum: Ancient beginnings


The Sweet Gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) is a deciduous tree that grows from Connecticut to Florida as well in Central America.  The common name comes from the brown sap they produce.  This sap has had various uses throughout history.  For example it was boiled down into an ointment for the skin, used as an incense, and combined with tobacco to produce a sleeping aid.   These trees have ancient beginnings.  There are 20  extinct species of Sweet Gum and the oldest is over 55 million years old!  This species of tree was important dating back tosweetgum-tree-0041the Aztec Empire.  Even now it has a variety of uses from furniture, veneer, lumber and pallets.   It makes a great shade tree for the garden since it grows fairly fast and has a straight form.  Because it grows fast it is used in reforestation, land reclamation and agro forestry.   They typically range in height from 60′ – 80′ tall but it is not unusual for them to exceed 100′. Their beautiful leaves go from a deep green in summer to a burgundy in the autumn.  The spiny fruit they produce resembles a medieval weapon the mace.   These go from a green fleshy like object to a hard dried prickly ball that is hard enough to puncture a tire.  We spend most of the sweetgum-tree-005winter and spring raking these things into piles to keep our dogs and us from hurting our feet.  It is the one quality that I don’t like about this tree.  According to my research they prefer a moist soil and can be found near water in the wild.  However mine is planted in the exact opposite conditions and does well.  It is at least 30 years old and must be about 60-70′ tall.  Since I started  reading the history of this native specimen I find myself feeling more fond of its’ good attributes and less bothered by the sticky balls.  After all it was the only tree standing tall and proud after Hurricane Isabel struck in 2004.   Any tree that can survive that much wind and rain and sustain no major damage is a great addition to the garden.


20 responses to this post.

  1. I think Sweet Gum’s are one of the prettiest fall trees around. I even like the little sweet gum balls they produce. Mix them in potpourri with pine cones–really pretty!

    They do have a lovely fall display. My grandmother use to take the dried gum balls and roll them in a bit of glue & glitter for ornaments for the tree. Your idea sounds good too!


  2. Oh yeah, we have plenty of these around here, and heck yes they hurt when you step on them!

    Yes they do! I’ve almost twisted my ankle a couple of times stepping on them Darla.


  3. We have a lot of sweet gum here along our backyard. The Goldfinch love the gum balls as food.

    However, our sweet little Charm (our greyhound) just hates getting gum balls stuck between her toes!


    I didn’t realize the Goldfinch used these as a food source, thanks for the info Cameron! The poor thing, our old beagle Misty doesn’t like stepping on them either.


  4. I had one when I lived in the south. I miss the seed pods I used for various wreaths and decorations.

    I forgot about the decorative uses until you & Linda brought it up Marnie.


  5. Racquel–What a nice posting. We have A LOT of sweet gum, and though we lost several during the hurricane, you’re right that a lot of them weathered the storm. I have to say, though, that even after your lovely history, I still resent the gumballs. They’re annoying enough as it is, but the squirrels throw them at Ranunculus if he gets too close to the wrong tree (so now I’m going to think f them as squirrel maces . . .)

    Thanks Cosmo! We lost our mature Silver Maple, part of the Pecan Tree, a Crape Myrtle & a Bradford Pear. It is still hard to like the gumballs, they are such treacherous things. My squirrels throw them at our dogs too. 😉 It isn’t funny really but the dogs do torment them alot.


  6. We had a couple of these in our yard in GA. They were pretty young at the time so we didn’t have to deal with too many of those balls. The one thing I did like about them is the fall color. I can’t believe they date back 55 million years. That is incredible!

    Mine is so massive and every year it seems to produce even more than the year before Susie! The fall color is amazing in November here. Wasn’t that incredible, I didn’t realize the history of this tree either until I did some reading.


  7. Hi Racquel, The tree looks bold and beautiful! And even the prickley balls it produces I think are interesting. I would use them for crafts and such. But it would be a nuisance having them all over your yard! Sharp enough to puncture a tire? Wow, that IS sharp! Jan

    Hi Jan, thank you. It is a pretty specimen inspite of the dangerous weapons it produces. 😉 I was telling Linda that my grandmother use to make them into ornaments to decorate the tree or fill a basket. We rolled them in glue and glitter. They do pretty. We make the teenagers rake them when they are grounded. 😉 Yep they are pretty sharp.


  8. I had these in my backyard in NC. I loved everything about them but the balls. Urgh! Many crafters treasure those balls though. Not me and not my lawnmower or feet. They are actually breeding new trees that don’t have them. I think that will be a boon for the beautiful trees. I just read at The Gardens of Petersonville about this tree, and in Cali they actually call it Liquid Amber; which I thought quite cool.

    Me too Tina, the balls are their one downfall. From what I’ve heard so far, they are a great resource for crafting. I never even thought about some of these uses. Yep the lawnmower spits them out like torpedos. That hurts too! The new hybrids sound interesting. I guess you will have to grow them from a cutting then, because gumball is where the seeds reside. Liquid Amber, what a cool name!


  9. Hi Racquel, I do love these trees, I even like the balls for crafts, but since I don’t have one growing in my yard that is easy for me to say! I was thinking there was a sterile one available, and Tina confirmed that. The fall leaf color is beautiful, as is the leaf shape unique.

    Hi Frances, the fall color and great shade it provides for my yard is appreciated. Crafting is not my thing, but I didn’t realize they were used for it either. I think if they were at the edge of a property in a wooded area it wouldn’t be so bad, but in a backyard it’s a nuisance. The sterile one sounds great for a subdivision property like mine. Thanks!


  10. hey thanks for sharing all the amazing facts on the sweet gum. i love hearing about what the original purposes for the trees were.

    You are welcome Marmee! I found it quite interesting too!


  11. Great info! When we take our morning walk, these little spiked balls litter the sidewalks and hide under the snow for that unsuspecting foot to step on 🙂

    Thanks Mom, I know how that feels. Ouch!


  12. A very pretty tree and I can say I like the balls because I don’t have any of the trees! If I did, I would want it in a low traffic area for sure.

    Thanks Cindy. lol, that is usually the case. You’re right in a low traffic area like along the edge of a property in a wooded area wouldn’t be so bad.


  13. Our neighbor had an older and quite large sweet gum tree on the edge of their property when we lived in Alabama. Of course most of the gumballs fell into our yard and the gutters of our house. Unless I lived on a large wooded property I wouldn’t want a sweet gum tree again.

    Yeah the gutters is another issue I forgot to mention. They would be better for a more rural area with woods. Of course with the new sterile ones they can be planted anywhere now.


  14. I love the end of season colour of these trees but hadn’t realised the seed casings could be such a problem or that the tree had medicinal properties. Always good to learn something new. I do think the name Liquidambar is attractive.

    I’m glad you were able to learn something new about these natives. Thanks EG!


  15. It definitely has a handsome leaf and looks like a fine tree but OUCH! I probably would pass because of the prickly balls too.

    Yep sometimes the cons outweigh the pros with plants Kathleen. Ouch is right! 🙂


  16. thank you!! It’s on my blog!!!

    You are quite welcome Darla! 🙂


  17. We’ve always liked them. There were some planted outside of our apartment that we lived in a couple years ago and the fall color was fantastic! A couple of the seed balls fell into a planter pot we had outside the apartment and sprouted. Now we have three small saplings, two in pots and one planted. I can stand the seeds for that fall color.

    I knew you would appreciate these trees Dave. I’ve heard you comment on them in the past on a post. The fall color is pretty fantastic. Well that worked out great, the saplings should take off really quick with some extra moisture in the beginning. I guess you have a point, you have to take the cons with the pros. 🙂


  18. I think this tree is prettier in other people’s yards. You can also use the fruit to mulch beds that you want to keep cats from using as a litter box. It works equally well as mulch in large house plants that indoor cats may be interested in.

    lol, you might have an idea there Les. 🙂 Clever ideas for using them as mulch to keep cats at bay.


  19. I love this tree and wouldn’t mind the little medieval weapons (poor Ranunculus!) If I can put up with acorns, these won’t bother me. But I haven’t one, this tree died in my yard…it needed way more water then I could provide in its early years..the drought of 2007 took it out! Gail

    Yep you sometimes have to take the bad with the good when it comes to the plant kingdom. I’ve been lucky with this tree thus far. It must be happy where it is planted.


  20. Loved reading all the info about the sweet gum. It’s fall foliage is attractive…loved the first photo too!

    Thanks Kanak. It is an interesting tree for the garden especially in the fall with it’s colorful appearance. 🙂


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