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American Sweet Gum Tree: An Attractive Plant With Drawbacks

Linda Crampton is a writer and teacher with an honors degree in biology. She loves to study nature and write about living things.

A Tree for Gardens and Landscaped Areas

The American sweet gum tree is an attractive plant that produces beautiful leaf colours in the fall. It's grown as an ornamental tree in southwestern British Columbia, where I live. It's an introduced plant in the province but does well here. I don't have a tree in my garden, but some lovely specimens are located close to my home. I'm able to observe them on a frequent basis.

The tree can be a great addition to either a garden or a landscaped area. The location for the tree needs to be considered carefully, however. The spiky fruits that it drops can sometimes cause problems. The plant has other interesting features besides its autumn leaf colour and its fruits. These features might include health benefits.

Sweet gum leaves and fruits on a tree near my home in October

Sweet gum leaves and fruits on a tree near my home in October

Liquidambar styraciflua

The scientific name of the American sweet gum (or sweetgum) tree is Liquidambar styraciflua. The genus name is derived from the phrase "liquid amber", although it's spelled differently. The name refers to the scented sap released when the trunk is damaged. The resinous sap is a thick and gummy liquid at first and is yellow to amber in colour. Some people use the semi-hardened sap as chewing gum. The word "sweet" in the tree's name refers to the scent of the gum, not the taste. The gum is said to taste slightly bitter.

The tree belongs to the family Altingiaceae and is native to the eastern part of the United States and Mexico. Until quite recently, it was placed in the witch hazel family, or the Hamamelidaceae. Studies of its genetics have shown that the genus Liquidambar should be classified in a separate group from witch hazel. The older family name is still used by some people, however.

The tree grows in USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) plant hardiness zones 5 to 9. It does well in southwestern BC. Our winters are mostly mild, unlike the case in the rest of the province. We sometimes get a little snow in winter, but it doesn't last for long (except on the mountain tops).

The tree in mid-May

The tree in mid-May

Trunk and Leaves

The tree is usually between sixty and eighty feet tall when it's mature and has a spread of around fifty feet. It occasionally reaches a height of a hundred feet or more. Multiple cultivars of the plant are available, so people can choose one that is likely to have the characteristics that they want, such as a suitable height. The bark of the trunk is grey and has irregular ridges and furrows. The wood is sometimes used to make furniture and veneer.

Sweet gum leaves resemble maple leaves but are more deeply divided. They have five narrow lobes and occasionally more. The leaves are star shaped. The edges of the lobes are finely serrated. The leaves are attached to a branch by a long petiole, or leaf stalk.

In the autumn, the leaves turn a beautiful shade of yellow, orange, pink, purple, and red. They are often multicoloured. Their appearance is a major reason for the popularity of the tree. The tree is disliked as well as loved, however, as I explain below.

New and old sweet gum balls (The leaves in the photo aren't sweet gum ones.)

New and old sweet gum balls (The leaves in the photo aren't sweet gum ones.)

Flowers, Fruits, and Seeds

The mature tree produces greenish-yellow flowers in the spring. The flowers are small, but they are grouped together to make larger structures. The plant is monoecious, which means that male and female flowers are present on the same tree.

Male and Female Flowers

The male flower-bearing structure is an upright spike that is two to three inches long. The female flowers are borne in a roughly spherical structure that often hangs from the plant via a stalk. The structures that bear the flowers are shown in the photo below. The flowers are pollinated by wind that carries pollen from a different sweet gum tree.

Fruits or Gum Balls

The female structure becomes a green and spiky ball as it matures. The structure is made from multiple flowers and therefore contains multiple fruits. It becomes brown as it ripens and is known as a gum ball. Gum balls growing close together may stick to each other, forming a chain or cluster.

The Seeds

An individual gum ball contains capsules that each bear several seeds. The seeds are released through an opening in the capsule. Though many of the mature gum balls fall to the ground after releasing their seeds, some stay on the trees during the winter.

American sweet gum flowers; the male flowers are in the upright spike and the female ones in the hanging ball

American sweet gum flowers; the male flowers are in the upright spike and the female ones in the hanging ball

Potential Problems Caused by Gum Balls

Walking barefoot under a sweet gum tree that has dropped its fruits can be a painful experience. The gum balls are sometimes so numerous that if they fall on a sidewalk they may be risky to walk on and cause problems such as sprained ankles. They can also be painful for dog paws. It's suggested that the tree is planted far away from a sidewalk for these reasons. Another potential problem that may develop near a sidewalk is that the tree's roots may damage the pavement.

I haven't read reports about serious problems caused by the gum balls where I live. Perhaps they exist but I've never encountered them, or perhaps the tree produces fewer fruits in my area and is less problematic than in warmer climates. I recently noticed than one of the two sweet gum trees growing by the school shown in the second photo in this article has been removed, however. This was presumably because of a problem with the tree or its effects.

The felled tree appeared healthy to me. I suspect that its removal was due to the fact that the tree was further away from the building and the playground than the tree in my photo and was creating supervision problems. On one occasion during school hours, I noticed children gathering gum balls from below the second tree (but not the first one nearer the school) and throwing them at each other.

As annoying as the gums balls may be, some people enjoy using them in crafts. An Internet search for "sweet gum ball crafts" should bring up some interesting ideas. The balls are used to make Christmas tree ornaments and are added to dried flower arrangements and other decorations, for example.

Clearing the balls from the ground can be difficult, even where I live. The video below shows a cultivated variety of the plant (Liquidambar styraciflua 'rotundiloba') that doesn't produce fruit.

Growing the Tree in a Garden

The local garden centre that I visit says that American sweet gum should be grown in full sunlight and in average to moist conditions. These recommendations are for southwestern British Columbia, where the tree probably needs as much sun as it can get, but U.S. websites agree with the recommendations.

The Missouri Botanical Garden says that the plant needs full sun and moderate moisture. A University of Kentucky web page also says that the plant likes moist soil. The plant doesn't do well in alkaline soil. It's reportedly resistant to deer and rabbits. The lifespan estimates that I've read say that the tree can live from eighty to a hundred and fifty years.

The trees are often bought as seedlings, but some people like to grow them from seeds. The potential height and spread of the tree should be kept in mind. It should be planted away from obstructions or objects that it might damage. One tree in my area has been planted beside a sidewalk at the start of a walking trail. The sidewalk is cracked in multiple places near the tree. This may be a coincidence, but cracked sidewalks are said to be a problem caused by the tree's roots.

American Storax

The gum produced by the tree is known as American storax or simply as storax. The later term is also used for gum obtained from other plants. Claims of multiple health benefits for American storax exist. As the WebMD website says, there is insufficient evidence to support these claims at the moment.

The gum was used as a traditional medicine by the native people of the United States and by European settlers. I think that traditional medicines are worth investigating. Today the gum is used to give a pleasant fragrance to perfumes and soaps. It's also used as a fixative to prepare specimens for examination under a microscope.

The gum appears to be safe to chew in small amounts. although I don't know how the chewing action affects the teeth and any dental work. Moderate amounts may cause diarrhea or a rash. Large amounts may be dangerous, as the quote shown below indicates. Since the details of how the gum affects the body are unknown, pregnant and nursing women should avoid using it.

Do not take large amounts by mouth or apply large amounts to open wounds. This can cause serious side effects including kidney damage.

— WebMD website (in reference to American storax)

Sweet gum leaves and bark and western red cedar with cones

Sweet gum leaves and bark and western red cedar with cones

Fighting Bacteria and Viruses

The gum contains chemicals that might fight some species of bacteria. More research is need to confirm the possibly beneficial effects of the gum. I hope this research is done soon. We need help to fight certain infections at the moment due to the development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria.

Sweet gum also contains shikimic acid. This is the starting chemical in the multi-step process used to make Tamiflu®, a drug that fights flu viruses. The drug is also known as oseltamivir. The presence of shikimic acid in sweet gum is interesting, but more research is needed in order to find out whether it's important. The concentration of the chemical in sweet gum is lower than that found in some other plants.

Some people list wonderful benefits of sweet gum sap as though they are proven facts. Perhaps one day they will be, but additional investigations and discoveries are needed in order to prove that the claimed health benefits of the plant are real.

If a chemical in the plant is proven to be helpful, researchers will need to determine the amount or concentration that is most beneficial for us while still being safe. The chemical may need to be extracted from the plant and then purified and concentrated in order to be both effective and safe. This process needs to be economically worthwhile. If another plant has a higher concentration of a useful chemical, it may be better to concentrate research efforts on that organism.

Sweet gum bonsai at the United States National Arboretum

Sweet gum bonsai at the United States National Arboretum

An Interesting Sight

I'm happy to see the tree growing near my home. I wouldn't grow one in my garden due to its potential size and the possible effects of the gum balls on my dogs' feet. Seeing the trees beside a managed trail in my neighbourhood and in nearby gardens is always interesting, however. I see the gum balls on the grass, sidewalks, and gutters in my neighbourhood, but not in huge amounts and only in certain locations.

I sympathize with people who live in areas where the tree is more common and the gum balls more numerous and more annoying. I think the tree is lovely, but I can understand why some of the comments that I read praise the plant and others express dislike for it. In my part of the world, the plant seems to be more praised than disliked. It's a pleasant sight in a garden or landscaped area. I always enjoy examining sweet gum trees during my walks.

References

© 2019 Linda Crampton

Comments

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on February 12, 2020:

Hi, Peggy. I've found more sweet gum trees in my area since I wrote the article. It seems to be a popular tree, despite the potential problems that it can cause!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 12, 2020:

Sweet Gum trees grow in our area. The foliage is lovely, but when the trees shed those gumballs, walking can be dangerous. They really are sharp! In the past, I have made wreaths out of the gumballs. It is fascinating that one of the ingredients in the sap is a part of what goes into making the drug Tamiflu.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on January 27, 2020:

Thank you for the comment, Asif. I'm afraid I'm not familiar with the climate in Pakistan or whether it's suitable for the plant.

Asif Jamal Marwat KPK from KPK Pakistan on January 27, 2020:

amazing you have share an informative article about this tree. Can i ask that is this tree can be grow up in Pakistan if someone try??

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on December 07, 2019:

Thanks for sharing your experience with the trees, Linda.

Linda Chechar from Arizona on December 07, 2019:

We had several sweet gum trees in our yard in Missouri. They are beautiful fall colors although the gum balls were extremely messy.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 23, 2019:

I'm looking forward to seeing your ornaments and reading your article.

Rebecca Mealey from Northeastern Georgia, USA on November 23, 2019:

Interesting! I have a few sweet gum trees nearby. I made some ornaments out of the sweet gum balls I plan to share on here. The sweet gum bonsai is a new one on me!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 11, 2019:

Hi, Mel. I must admit that I'm surprised by the placement of two sweet gum trees in my neighbourhood. The city has placed them right by a sidewalk, too. They are beautiful trees, though. Thanks for the comment.

Mel Carriere from San Diego California on November 11, 2019:

I had a sweet gum tree all the way down here in San Diego, almost in Mexico, and I eventually dug it out and gave it to a friend when it wasn't growing.

These sweet gum trees were planted by our city of Chula Vista, in a sort of misguided attempt to go green. While I sympathize with the desire to reduce carbon by planting trees, not a lot of thought was put into either the selection of trees or their placement. Ours was planted right by a sidewalk. Fortunately whoever planted it did not properly prepare the root ball, and it was too twisted to ever fully grow.

One of our letter carriers in the Post Office turned his ankle on a sweet gum ball. I frequently encounter them myself. Great article!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on November 02, 2019:

Thank you very much, Chitrangada. Nature certainly does contain an abundance of beauty!

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on November 02, 2019:

The American Sweet Gum tree looks so beautiful. I love the colours of the leaves. Thanks for sharing the detailed information about this wonderful tree.

The Nature has abundance of beauty. Love your pictures.

Thank you for sharing this.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 29, 2019:

Thanks for commenting, Manatita. Bonsai trees are interesting. It's fascinating that a mature tree can be so small!

manatita44 from london on October 29, 2019:

Nice autumnal rose-pinky colour and good info too. Strange thing, seeing that Bonsai, at the U.S Arboretum.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 28, 2019:

Hi, Audrey. I don't think it's weird to hug trees! It sounds like you live in a lovely area. Thanks for the visit.

Audrey Hunt from Idyllwild Ca. on October 27, 2019:

The American Sweet Gum Tree is lovely! I've enjoyed reading about its chemical benefits as well. I'm one of those weird people who hugs trees just about every day. Living in our beautiful forest brings me opportunities galore to wrap my arms as far as I can around the tree's trunk.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 26, 2019:

Thank you very much, Nithya. It's a lovely tree.

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on October 26, 2019:

The American Sweet Gum Tree looks beautiful with colorful leaves in autumn. Learned a lot about the tree from your detailed article with interesting facts. Great photos.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 24, 2019:

Hi, Adrienne. Yes, it is nice here right now, especially on a sunny day. I'm glad there's always something new to learn about. It makes life interesting!

Adrienne Farricelli on October 24, 2019:

Thank you for taking a stroll and posting pictures you have personally made of the tree. It must be nice in British Colombia this time of the year. I have seen crafts made of gum balls before, but didn't they were called this way and what tree they come from. Always something new to learn about!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 23, 2019:

Thanks for sharing your experience, Denise. I've collected some gum balls myself and am going to try creating ornaments from them.

Blessings to you, too.

Denise McGill from Fresno CA on October 23, 2019:

The tree is lovely and not that annoying. I have raked up the leaves and balls before it wasn't that hard. I've also used the gumballs in crafts, wreaths, and ornaments before. Spray painted gold, they are pretty.

Blessings,

Denise

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 23, 2019:

Hi, Devika. Thanks for the comment. Nature can certainly be surprising!

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on October 23, 2019:

A beautiful tree i had no idea of this information. I like the photos a well written hub. Nature has lots to surprise us with and this is one of a surprise.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 20, 2019:

Thanks, Cynthia. I always appreciate your visits.and comments. I suspect that many people would think that the tree is a maple if they looked at it quickly. Looking at the ground to see if the tree has dropped any gum balls is a great way to confirm its identity.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 20, 2019:

Hi, Liz. The tree is especially lovely in the fall. It has some attractions at other times of the year as well. I enjoy observing it. Thanks for the comment.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 20, 2019:

Thank you, Readmikenow. I appreciate your visit and comment.The trees are certainly an interesting sight. They are popular here.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 20, 2019:

Thank you, John. I would love to have a sweet gum tree growing in my garden, but I don't have any room for it. Since there are two trees about a five-minute walk away from my home in a park-like setting, however, I'm happy!

Cynthia Zirkwitz from Vancouver Island, Canada on October 20, 2019:

Linda

I am not sure if we have the American sweet gum tree growing around here, but I plan to keep my eyes open to see if I can spot one on walks or local drive. This is another one of your educational and well-written articles from which I feel that I have learned enough about the piece's topic to engage an arbourist in at least a short intelligent-sounding conversation. Good work!

Liz Westwood from UK on October 20, 2019:

What a beautiful tree, especially in Autumn. This is a very informative article. It is interesting to read up about the various facets and uses of this tree.

Readmikenow on October 20, 2019:

Excellent article! I've been to the woods in Canada several times, so I've seen these trees. They are quite a sight. I've not seen them in the United States. I enjoyed reading this.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on October 20, 2019:

A wonderful article, Linda. It was also very informative as I mistakenly thought the liquidambar was native to Australia. I didn't know them as the American sweet Gum. They are a very popular tree here and we had one growing on our 40-acre property before we moved to town. They do need plenty of room.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 19, 2019:

Thank you very much for the comment, Lora. I think it's a beautiful tree, too, especially in the autumn. I'm lucky to live near some sweet gum trees that I can see every day.

Lora Hollings on October 19, 2019:

Such a beautiful tree! It reminds me of the Maple trees that I grew up with and loved. I would just love to see this tree in the Fall. Thanks for such a well written and informative article, Linda.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 19, 2019:

Hi, Dora. The Caribbean tree sounds like it has some very useful features. Thanks for the visit and for sharing the interesting information.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on October 19, 2019:

There's a gum tree in the Caribbean. Its leaves are used externally for pain, and the gum is used like glue. Not aware of any attractive feature. I think the one you describe is much more interesting.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 18, 2019:

Hi, Peg. I love the thought of beneficial substances in nature, too. I appreciate your visit.

Peg Cole from Northeast of Dallas, Texas on October 18, 2019:

Beautiful fall colors in this tree. I love the potential for beneficial things coming from natural sources. Those gumballs look like they'd be painful to step on.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 18, 2019:

Hi, Heidi. The trees do resemble maples from a distance. I think maples and sweet gums are attractive trees. I hope you have a great weekend.

Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on October 18, 2019:

From a distance, these almost look like the red maples that we have in our area. Beautiful! Thanks for sharing the not-so-known facts about this tree. Happy Weekend!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 18, 2019:

Thanks for the interesting comment, Mary. I would love to explore the places that you have seen.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on October 18, 2019:

I first saw this in Dubrovnik and I took a picture of it because I liked the way it wove with the ruins. I did not know its name then until I read your hub. Thank you.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 18, 2019:

Thanks for the comment and for sharing the information about your country, Sharon. I think I'd miss our four seasons if I didn't experience them. Like you, I'd love to visit other countries, including the Philippines.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 18, 2019:

Thank you very much, Bill. I hope you have a lovely weekend, too!

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 18, 2019:

Hi, Liza. If I had a lot of land that my dogs could explore, I would plant a tree in one section and protect them from any gum balls that were produced. It is a gorgeous tree.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 18, 2019:

Hi, Pamela. Yes, the decision about where to place the plant is an important one. The tree can cause problems, but it's beautiful as well.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 18, 2019:

Thanks, Bill. The tree is certainly beautiful in the fall. I'm glad it's able to grow here. It's an interesting sight on a walk.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 18, 2019:

Hi, Flourish. I love the photo of the bonsai tree, too. That would be an interesting plant to have in a home. Thanks for the comment.

Linda Crampton (author) from British Columbia, Canada on October 18, 2019:

Thank you, Loyal Frienemy.

Sharon Lopez from Philippines on October 18, 2019:

Such an interesting article! Since we only have 2 seasons in our country, I haven't experienced other seasons suhc as fall and winter. I only see these leaves and plants with amazing colors in photos. Thankfully, there is internet. We can see what's happening in other parts of the world. But the dream of being able to reach other countries is still with me. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful post.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 18, 2019:

For sure I've seen these around here. Lovely color and shape. Thanks for the information, which I can always count on you to deliver. Have a lovely weekend, Linda!

Liza from USA on October 18, 2019:

The tree is gorgeous! I like the sweet gum bonsai. How I wish I have this tree at my house :) The fact that the tree has a beneficial effect from the gum, it can be useful. Thanks for sharing the article, Linda.

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on October 18, 2019:

This looks like a very atrractive tree, and I love the fall colors. Thanks for all the good information about this tree as people obviously need to know where to plant this particularly large tree with their gum balls.

Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on October 18, 2019:

Another fascinating article, Linda. I don’t see the Sweet Gum Tree in our area of western Massachusetts, perhaps the winters are too cold for it here. It has beautiful fall colors.

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 18, 2019:

Oh, yes, I am familiar with this tree. Very beautiful but definitely wear the shoes! I enjoyed learning about the medicinal uses, the idea to use them for crafts (especially with kids), and loved the photo of that little bonsai tree.

Brights and Blues by Nishika Chhabra from India on October 18, 2019:

Insightful !

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