Description and Intro to Sweetgum

Description and Intro to Sweetgum
Sweetgum goes by various other common names. These include alligator wood, gumtree, red gum, and star-leaved gum.

In the wild, this tree occurs in a range of habitats from swamps, flood plains, river banks, mixed woodlands, bottom land woods, upland fields, old fields, and abandoned fields. It grows to 3000 feet elevation.

Sweetgum is best suited to zones 5 through 9. This tree is named for the scented clear gum that is amber-like. At one time, there were perhaps twenty species of sweegums. But, for whatever reason the others became extinct, including one that was found in Greenland.

Description of Sweetgum

The alternate, toothed, palmate leaves are star-like with three to seven lobes. Three to seven inches wide, these are stalked. They feature a rich, shiny green color for most of the season. During the fall, these are sure to bring beautiful autumn tones.

This color is quite reliable for unlike some native trees, this species needs no cool temperatures in order to change color. What is even more delightful is that this fall color is quite long lasting. The leaves remain on the tree later than that of some other species.

The fall color can vary widely. It can be yellow, pink, red, gold, or purple, depending on the type being grown. Trees that originate in the South tend to change color later than the others.

The sweetgum has a beautiful silhouette. This dense, round headed plant has a straight trunk. It is pyramidal when young. The bottom half of the trunk is typically free of branches.

When cultivated, this plant is generally medium sized from 60 feet to 75 feet in height. It features massive, picturesque branches. The bark ranges from red-brown to gray. The dark red buds are colorful.

The gray twigs and young branches feature cork-like ridges, especially as the growth ages. The corky bark provides interesting texture to the landscape, particularly in the winter.

A sweetgum usually won’t bloom until it is twenty or so years of age. This plant can bear lots of fruits. The curious looking fruits are borne in pendulous clusters. These fruits are an inch wide and consist of a spiny, wood-like ball.

These are actually a globe-like collection of capsules with one having a spiny tip. Ripening to brown, these fruits persist into the winter months and are quite conspicuous. The fruits turn brown when ripe.

The one down side to sweetgum fruits is that they can cause injury if anyone walks barefoot under the tree. This is due to the spines.

Removing all of these fruits that fall in the landscape can become a chore. Instead, just create a mulched bed around the tree where the fruits can collect. They are very slow to decay.

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