August 31, 2012 /
Sebastian O'Connor

Tree of the Month: Sweetgum

The United States has many national emblems, including a national bird and flower, but imagine what it would be like to add a national tree to that list? Well, if Alexander Hamilton had his way, we would have gotten just that: he was very fond of September’s Tree of the Month: the sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua).

Mr. Hamilton once said that he wanted to see his favorite tree become “America’s emblematic tree,” and although it is perhaps unfortunate that the sweetgum did not make it into the same exclusive club as the bald eagle and the rose, it remains a popular and prized tree wherever it’s found. Liquidambar styraciflua ranges along most of the eastern United States: from Connecticut to southern Florida, and from the swells of the Atlantic all the way to Oklahoma. It is a member of the Witch-Hazel family and can even be found in areas of Mexico and Central America.

The best way to recognize the sweetgum is by its five-pointed, star-shaped leaves that bear a close similarity to some members of the Maple species. The leaves are alternate and serrated, with a long stem attaching it to the branch and tinted in a rich green color. In the fall the sweetgum really stands out as its leaves turn to a brilliant spectrum of red, yellow, orange, and purple colors. Flowers come in small, inconspicuous round shapes attached in clusters to a thick stalk, but the fruits of Liquidambar styraciflua are easily recognizable due to their round, hard and spiky shape.

The sweetgum is one of the most common hardwoods in the eastern United States and is fairly adaptable to different conditions. It prefers moist, acidic or loamy soils and can tolerate poorly drained and salty soils as well. Liquidambar styraciflua are a long–lived species, and commonly reach ages of over 400 years. It is a medium-to-large-sized deciduous tree that normally doesn’t grow taller than 115 feet with a minimum height of 70 feet.

The sweetgum is prized in the lumber industry as an affordable, durable wood that may not be the strongest but the rich red color of the wood can be polished to create many beautiful pieces of furniture or luxury items. Historical uses of the sweetgum include the harvest of its resin as a cure for sciatica and weak nerves. Interestingly enough, a chemical compound from the related Oriental sweetgum helped to invent Styrofoam. They are also widely used in land reclamation projects as they grow quickly and are insect-resistant.

With its advantages of year-round beauty, longevity, and fragrant wood and leaves it is easy to fall in love with the sweetgum, just like Alexander Hamilton did long ago. We are lucky to see this tree commonly in D.C., and if you want a closer look you need to go no farther than the National Zoo, the U.S. Capitol grounds, Constitution Gardens, or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, to name but a few.

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Photo credit: EphusBailey.