Sweet Gum

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Sweet Gum

(Liquidambar styraciflua)

Interesting Information About Plant: 

     The tree received its name for the sweet taste and gummy feel of its sap. Early Pioneers used to make chewing gum. The Sweet gum plant is from the genus Liquidambar and is a member of the deciduous hardwoods or Hamamelidaceae.  The North American species is native to Connecticut, south to New York to Florida, southern Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri to Texas and Mexico. The tree is a living fossil that has twenty known extinct species, the oldest found in the

     Upper Eocene rocks of Greenland, during a time when the continent had a subtropical climate, some 55,000,000 years ago.  Fossils were later found in Italy, Siberia, Colorado, and in great numbers in the Miocene lake beds of Switzerland.

The tree gets its name from Native Americans and early pioneers who would chew its hard clumps of resin.  This could be obtained by stripping off the bark and allowing the resin to harden.  Commercial storax was used in fragrances and medicines as well and is found in related oriental sweet gum plants. 

Common Name: Sweetgum

Scientific Name:   Liquidambar styraciflua

Family Name (Scientific and Common):  Hamamelidaceae

Continent of Origin: North America

Most Distinguishing Morphological Features of This Plant:

Sweet gum fruit is a green gumball shape covered in spikes and difficult to break open.

Plant Growth Habit:  Large Tree

Height at Maturity:   More than 10 Feet

Life Span:    Perennial

Seasonal Habit: Deciduous Perennial

Growth Habitat:    Full Sun

Manner of Culture:  Landscape Shrub-Vine-Tree / Native Species

Thorns on Younger Stem?   No

Cross Section of Younger Stem:      Roundish

Stem (or Trunk) Diameter:   More Than The Diameter of a Coffee-Mug 

Produces Brownish Bark?   Yes

Bark Peeling in Many Areas?    No

Characteristics of Mature (Brownish) Bark:    Lines Go Up-Down  

Type of Leaf:   Flat, Thin Leaf  

Length of Leaf (or Leaflet):  the Length of a Credit Card and a Writing-Pen  

Leaf Complexity:    Simple 

Shape of Leaf:    Palmated-Lobed

Edge of Leaf?    Serrated

Leaf Arrangement:  Alternate 

Leaf has Petiole?  Yes 

Patterns of Main-Veins:  Pinnate

Leaf Hairiness:   No Hairs

Color of Foliage in Summer:    Green

Change in Color of Foliage in October: Changes to Reddish-Orange

Flowering Season:   Spring 

Flowers:    Tightly Clustered   

Type of Flower:   Like a Grass Flower 

Color of Flower:   Green  

Shape of Individual Flower:    Other

Size of Individual Flower:  Smaller than a Quarter  

Sexuality:   Male and Female on Same Plant

Size of Fruit:    Between a Quarter and the Length of a Credit Card 

Fruit Fleshiness at Maturity?    Dry

Shape of Fruit:    Spherical   

Color of Fruit at Maturity:    Brown or Dry

Fruit Desirable to Birds or Squirrels?      Yes   

Unique Morphological Features of Plant:  Mature fruit is hard and spiky

Is the Plant Poisonous:    None of Plant

Pesty Plant (weedy, hard to control)?    No

Common Name(s): Red Gum, Star-leaved gum, Bilsted, Alligator Tree and Liquidambar.

Louisville Plants That Are Most Easily Confused With This One:

Large Maples


Page prepared by:

Ryan Lederman

November 2005

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© Bellarmine University, Louisville, KY 2002-2004