Content Detail

Sweet-gum is known for its unique star-shaped leaves with outstanding yellow, red, and purple fall color. It can be an excellent shade tree in the right location, away from foot traffic where the spiky “gumball” fruits will not be an annoyance. If an appropriate space is available, check out the cold-hardy cultivar, ‘Moraine’, which is recommended for northern Illinois.

  • Family (English) Witch Hazel
  • Family (botanic) Hamamelidaceae
  • Planting site Residential and parks
  • Tree or plant type Tree
  • Foliage Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)
  • Native locale Illinois, North America
  • Size range Large tree (more than 40 feet)
  • Mature height 60-75 feet
  • Mature width 40-75 feet
  • Light exposure Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)
  • Hardiness zones Zone 5 (Northern Illinois), Zone 6 (City of Chicago), Zone 7, Zone 8, Zone 9
  • Soil preference Acid soil, Moist, well-drained soil, Wet soil
  • Tolerances clay soil, Occasional flooding, Road salt, Wet sites
  • Season of interest mid fall, late fall
  • Flower color and fragrance Inconspicuous, Other
  • Shape or form Oval, Pyramidal, Round
  • Growth rate Fast, Moderate
  • Transplants well Yes
  • Planting considerations Intolerant of pollution, Marginally hardy, Messy fruit/plant parts
  • Wildlife Game birds, Insect pollinators, Sapsuckers, Small mammals, Songbirds
  • Has cultivars Yes

Native geographic location and habitat: 

Sweet-gum is native to the eastern United States, from southwestern Connecticut to Florida.

Bark color and texture: 

Mature trees have a grayish-brown, deeply furrowed bark with narrow ridges. Some trees develop interesting corky ridges on two year old stems.

Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture: 

The alternate leaves are maple-like or star-shaped. They have five to seven lobes and are 4 to 8 inches long and wide with serrate margins. The dark to medium glossy green leaves change to a kaleidoscope of yellow, red, and purple tones in the fall. Leaves have a camphor-like smell when crushed.

Flower arrangement, shape, and size: 

Monoecious. Non-showy, drooping female flowers are yellowish-green in early spring.  Male flowers are upright, reddish-green in terminal panicles.

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions: 

Gumball-like, 1 to 1 1/2 inch, spiny fruits change from green to brown in late summer and fall. Fruits are a dehiscent capsule and persist into winter. They are considered messy, especially near sidewalks and patios.

Plant care:

Sweet-gum grows best in full sun to partial shade in deep, moist, bottomland soils. Transplanting is difficult due to a shallow, fleshy root system. Slow to establish.  Because of its wide geographical range, it is important to use northern nursery sources.

List of pests, diseases, and tolerances: 

Iron chlorosis can be a problem in high pH soils. Tolerant of black walnut toxicity.

Emerald Sentinel® sweet-gum (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Clydesform’):

A narrow-pyramidal shape, this grows 30 feet high and 12 feet wide. Fall color is yellow-orange.

Moraine sweet-gum (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Moriane’): 

An upright, oval habit with excellent red fall color. This is faster growing and a more cold hardy cultivar appropriate for the Chicago region.

Slender Silhouette sweet-gum (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Slender Silhouette’):  

A narrow, columnar form, growing 6 to 8 feet wide and 60 feet high.


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