American Sweet Gum Tree: An Attractive Plant With Drawbacks

Updated on June 26, 2020
AliciaC profile image

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

A sweet gum tree in the fall
A sweet gum tree in the fall | Source

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 | Source

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 | Source

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.) | Source

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 | Source

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.

Colourful sweet gum leaves
Colourful sweet gum leaves | Source

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 | Source

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

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    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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 W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      5 months ago from Houston, Texas

      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.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      5 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • asifjamalmarwat profile image

      Asif Jamal Marwat KPK 

      5 months ago from KPK Pakistan

      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??

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for sharing your experience with the trees, Linda.

    • lindacee profile image

      Linda Chechar 

      7 months ago from Arizona

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

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      7 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 

      7 months ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      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!

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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 profile image

      Mel Carriere 

      8 months ago from San Diego California

      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!

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 

      8 months ago from New Delhi, India

      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.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 

      8 months ago from london

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

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      8 months ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      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.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 

      8 months ago from Dubai

      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.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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!

    • alexadry profile image

      Adrienne Farricelli 

      8 months ago

      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!

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile image

      Denise McGill 

      8 months ago from Fresno CA

      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

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      8 months ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      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.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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!

    • techygran profile image

      Cynthia Zirkwitz 

      8 months ago from Vancouver Island, Canada

      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!

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      8 months ago from UK

      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 profile image

      Readmikenow 

      8 months ago

      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.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      8 months ago from Queensland Australia

      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.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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 profile image

      Lora Hollings 

      8 months ago

      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.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      8 months ago from The Caribbean

      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.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 

      8 months ago from Northeast of Dallas, Texas

      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.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      8 months ago from Chicago Area

      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!

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      8 months ago from Ontario, Canada

      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.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

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

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      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.

    • AliciaC profile imageAUTHOR

      Linda Crampton 

      8 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Loyal Frienemy.

    • cinderella14 profile image

      Sharon Lopez 

      8 months ago from Philippines

      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.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      8 months ago from Olympia, WA

      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!

    • lizmalay profile image

      Liza 

      8 months ago from USA

      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.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      8 months ago from Sunny Florida

      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.

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 

      8 months ago from Massachusetts

      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 profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      8 months ago from USA

      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.

    • LoyalFrienemy profile image

      Brights and Blues by Nishika Chhabra 

      8 months ago from JAIPUR

      Insightful !

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