Liquidambar

Liquidambar

Common name American Sweet Gum
Botanical name Liquidambar styraciflua
Family Hamamelidaceae
Natural range North America
Mature height to to 25m
Form Upright, pyramidical when young, rounded with age
Likes Plenty of space for the root zone and canopy to reach full size
Dislikes Tree lopping – Very susceptible to decay.
Where to plant Away from structures, full sun, as a large feature tree
Known for Beautiful Autumn foliage, spiky fruit

An historical urban favourite

The classic, much loved Liquidambar (American Sweet Gum), is a common feature tree throughout many urban environments with a temperate climate. These trees were planted in enormous numbers throughout Australia, by our estimation between the 1950s and 1980s. In modern times, as residential blocks shrink in size, the Sweet Gum is a less popular choice.

Out of fashion but still a great tree

Liquidambars are out of fashion these days, with many homeowners moving toward smaller specimen trees for their gardens. Should you wish to plant one, we recommend a placement where the tree may reach its full height and spread, well away from structures. The shade of a Liquidambar in summer is an incredible thing. This is a tree to plant for the future, and it should be allowed a large area to reach its full potential and benefits.

Origin

Of the family Hamamelidaceae, Liquidambars are deciduous trees native to North America, commonly grown in urban gardens, streetscapes and parks for their exceptional autumn colour and iconic shape.

Lifespan

These trees are well-known as long-lived specimens, with a moderate growth rate and a mature height of 25m, L. styraciflua often has an upright, pyramidal habit when young, becoming oval, rounded to spreading with age.

An iconic, classic leaf

Leaves are a key feature of this specimen. The classic lobed or star shaped leaf, providing spectacular tones of yellow, red & purple during autumn is a favourite among gardeners and tree lovers. Bark is grey, furrowed, often becoming corky with age.

With an annoying, spiky fruit

Fruit are round, copious, spiky, and are often visible on the tree through winter. Anyone who lives with one of these trees (myself included) will know the pain of stepping on a Liquidambar fruit in bare feet!

And roots that wreck everything

Roots are known to be invasive, often protruding above soil level within the dripline or much, much further. These roots can and do crack concrete, disturb structures, break lawn mowers & cause home owners headaches. In fact, they cause so much angst, this page you are reading is our single, best performing article of all time. This tree is searched for online thousands of times per week!

How far do Liquidambar roots spread?

Typical root spread for any tree, as a gauge is 5-7 times the height. If this shocks you, remember, this metric is only used by Arborists to assess the potential for root spread. At an absolute minimum, expect the roots of this tree to extend to the dripline, which for a mature specimen can be a 15-20m.
Roots are opportunistic in nature. Where an opportunity to seek out water exists, they will take it. On the other hand, where water is abundant, we find roots do not spread a great distance from the tree.
A great example of this is Australian Eucalyptus trees such as the River Red Gum, or hardy urban specimens like the London Plane. While the Eucalypt is certainly a hardy tree, it will extend its roots just far enough to sink them into a nearby water source. The London Plane and Liquidambar on the other hand are hardy, aggressive trees. Built tough, city-proof and battle tested. These trees are relentless, and will extend their roots into pipes for hundreds of metres, through and under concrete, footpaths and roads to access the moisture they need. It is for this precise reason these trees are such popular urban choices. Simply put, they have what it takes to survive.

Watch those slabs & footings

Never remove a Liquidambar without consulting a professional. Many roots may be present under your house, and we’ve heard horror stories of suckers (shooting from surface roots) emerging through bathrooms, kitchens & bedrooms following removal. Unfortunately in this instance, poisoning and grinding of the stump is essential immediately after removing one of these.

My Liquidambar seems to have decay?

Liquidambars are commonly damaged due to poor pruning, new driveway installations or during fence upgrades. We have worked on all too many of these trees exhibiting severe decay due to height reducing lopping practices (tree topping) or root damage. Such practices are very costly to the homeowner, as Liquidambars are incredibly susceptible to decay following tree lopping or other damage. Significant decay will shorten a tree’s lifespan, as well as lead to an increase in deadwood and branch failures. A certified ISA Arborist can assist with correct pruning for situations like these.

Which climate is best for planting?

For larger parks and gardens, L. styraciflua is suitable for temperate sites and is considered to be a hardy tree overall, coping with cooler months and heat quite well. We believe their tolerance of heat begins to lessen into regions with extensive, humid summer months.

Interesting Facts:
  1. The American Sweet Gum tree has an iconic lobed or star-shaped leaf.
  2. The tree changes to spectacular tones of yellow, red, and purple during autumn.
  3. The bark of this tree is grey and furrowed, often becoming corky with age.
  4. It produces round, copious, spiky fruit that often remain visible on the tree through winter.
  5. The tree’s roots can spread up to 5-7 times its height and can cause significant damage.
  6. It is crucial to consult a professional before deciding to remove a Liquidambar tree due to its extensive root system.
  7. Liquidambar trees are highly susceptible to decay following tree lopping or any other damage.
  8. The tree can cope with both cooler months and heat but may struggle in regions with extensive, humid summer months.
Further Reading Links:
  1. American Sweet Gum – University of Florida
  2. Liquidambar styraciflua – Wikipedia
  3. American Sweet Gum – Missouri Botanical Garden
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