Have you ever stepped on a Lego piece barefoot? That's the reaction that most people have when they step on a sweetgum ball. Those little stickery orbs fall to the ground each fall and will catch the unsuspecting with a stabbing pain on the bottom of the foot. Even if you have on shoes, the hard ping-pong ball sized fruits can turn an ankle or worse. Most homeowners banish the tree from their yards based on the existence of these seedballs alone. They turn into flying missiles when caught by the lawnmower and create a mess on the lawn when left to the next season. So, why do I love this tree?
Botanical classification of sweetgum trees
Liquidambar styraciflua, more commonly known as sweetgum, hazel pine, redgum, satin walnut or alligator wood is a hardwood tree native to North America, parts of Central America and Mexico. It can eventually grow to over 100 feet and live for up to 400 years. The five lobed star-shaped leaves often confuse people who think it may be a maple, however there's no relation. Some people think they may be related to pine trees too, since the sweetgum also weeps a type of sap that reminds folks of pine resin and they mistakenly think it is from that family. The Liquidambar styraciflua is neither and it is the only one of its genus in the Hamamelidaceae family, which includes witch hazel. Regardless how it is classified, this is a truly unique tree with many positive attributes.
Herbal medicine and historical uses for sweetgum
Native peoples used it medicinally and there's actually quite a bit of evidence that the uses are legitimate. The sap is antibacterial and antifungal and was often used to treat colds, sore throats and spread on wounds to stop infection. It has expectorant properties and the boiled and cooled sap was used to treat fevers, bronchial infections and croup in babies. They even rolled the sap into balls and placed it in their dog's noses as a treatment for distemper. The most interesting compound that comes from this tree is shikimic acid which is a main ingredient in the commercial manufacture of the drug, Tamiflu®. So, there's much to be said for research into modern medicinal uses of this tree. Sweetgum was also a natural dye source for a purple or black color and they also used the twigs as a type of primitive toothbrush. My mom also remembers chewing the resin as a type of chewing gum. She describes the taste as fresh and slightly like pine. It isn't sweet at all, but not unpleasant. She also remembers older family members saying that they had used the twigs as toothbrushes, so that validates the toothbrush information. Since the sap is antibacterial, it seems that using those twigs probably helped alleviate some of the bacteria that could cause tooth decay in an ere where dental hygiene was not a priority. Children also collected the round balls near the holiday season and painted them for ornaments on the Christmas tree. A concoction of flour and water brushed over the fruits made them appear like snow covered them and they made for cheap and attractive ornaments.
Sweetgum wood uses
Sweetgums have a beautiful, light colored wood that many cabinet makers used as veneer. The pretty wood warped easily, so they laminated it on to a sturdier wood such as ash or maple. The wood takes stain well and was often stained a dark black shade to mimic the much more expensive ebony. Boxes, trunks, crates and plywood were made from sweetgum wood as well.
Sweetgum is an important host plant
My favorite reason for including sweetgum on my property (I have 4 acres) is that it is a host plant for over 30 butterflies and moths. Two of these moths are the large luna and promethea and they need all the help they can get as their numbers are becoming more fragile by the day. The caterpillars are never present in enough numbers to cause any harm to the tree, so let them be if you happen to see them. Hummingbirds stop at the greenish colored blooms on their way north and many songbirds and waterfowl love the seeds that the gumballs drop each fall. Raccoon, squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits also like to feast on the seeds as well.
Growing sweetgum trees
Another positive feature is the fantastic autumn color. Sweetgums have some of the best fall colors of any tree and the range of shades is amazing. Yellows, golds, corals, pinks, reds and deep maroons can display all on the same tree. The trees turn early and hold their leaves a long time, prolonging the show. If you love the color and hate the mess, there are sterile cultivars such as 'Rotundiloba' that don't produce the gumballs. This is great for homeowners with small properties who do not need the extra work. My sweetgum is a seedling that I took from the family farm and so it is one of the basic species. I don't care that it makes the stickery gumballs since it is planted away from walkways and living areas. Besides, I've had it nearly 20 years and it is just starting to produce the fruits. Sweetgums tolerate a wide range of soils and conditions. It prefers sunny a sunny location, slightly acidic, moist, well-drained soil. However, clay soil that is slightly alkaline and dry conditions don't seem to faze it much either. Make sure to give it plenty of room to grow upwards and avoid situating it near power lines, since it can grow quite tall. Mine is about 20 years old and is over 30 feet tall and it started out as a seedling the size of a matchstick. Also remember to plant your sweetgum away from walkways and foundations as the root system is pretty big and can cause concrete to heave if planted too close.
If you have the room and a planting area that the gumballs won't cause an issue, this is a wonderful tree to have in your garden.