Author: Tom Brady
Sweetgum, “Liquidamber Styraciflue”
I first encountered Sweetgum in Harper’s Ferry National Park, West Virginia. I was there to learn about John Brown’s pre-Civil war attack on the US Garrison that led to his hanging, but you do have to look at trees, don’t you?
I was struck by the bright red fall color at first. The books say that the color varies from yellow to purple and lasts a long time. As I approached, I thought it might be a Maple with its star-shaped leaves. When I got close enough, I noticed that it had very non-maple-like fruits, brown balls with prickly burrs about the size of a ping pong ball.
When I was later able to identify the tree, I found that the leaves are alternate, not opposite like the Maple. The limbs have corky ridges that distinguish the tree further.
Sweetgum can grow to over 100 feet and show good symmetry. It is native along the southeastern United States from Connecticut clear down to Mexico, so again, seed source is critical to success.
I have found the tree to struggle in our winter climate, but it is such a neat tree that I have to try it. I have grown some from seed sent to me from Kansas City and have one tree that is six to seven feet tall. I’ve been told there are good-sized trees at Des Moines Area Community College in Ankeny, but I have not seen them.
This tree that I referred to when I originally wrote this article back in 2000, died to the ground in one of our winters after having grown to nearly twelve feet. Sweetgum do survive in Iowa, but you must make sure you have a Northern variety. I have three struggling examples, all of which look like multi-stem shrubs. They are all on hole number two. Two of them are in the no mow area. The easiest one to see is just to the left of the yellow tee, near the creek.