Here is this week’s plant profile, which is all about the sweet gum tree, Liquidambar styraciflua. There is an avenue of these trees at Ashridge and they are looking absolutely stunning at the moment, turning beautiful shades of red and purple. It definitely deserves its title of Plant of the Week! 🙂
Common name: Sweet gum
Translation: From the Latin liquidus and ambar meaning “liquid amber” and styraciflua translating as “storax flowing”, in reference to the gum (storax) yielded by most species – hence the popular common name sweet gum.
Type of plant: Deciduous tree
Origin: Native to eastern North America
The ideal growing conditions for Liquidambar styraciflua are full sun or partial shade, in an exposed or sheltered position with moist but well-drained soil.
Soil: Liquidambar styraciflua can tolerate most soil types and pHs, including: acid and neutral: and loam, clay or sand.
Propagation: Propagation is easiest via semi-hardwood cuttings.
Cultivation: Liquidambar styraciflua is mainly used in Britain for its spectacular autumn foliage. The leaves turn brilliant shades of purple, crimson, orange and yellow, making it a popular ornamental tree.
Pest and disease problems: Liquidambar styraciflua is generally pest and disease free.
1. A resin called storax is extracted from the trunk of some species of Liquidambar, mainly Liquidambar orientalis (a relation to Liquidambar styraciflua) and is used in incense, adhesives and perfumes.
2. A Spanish naturalist by the name of Hernandez was the first European to discover Liquidambar in the early 16th century. It was given its botanical name because of its aromatic gum, which he described as ‘liquid amber’. However, it wasn’t until 1681 that it was finally introduced to Britain by the missionary plant collector John Bannister.
3. Often mistaken for a maple, Liquidambar styraciflua has similarly-shaped five-lobed leaves. However, while the leaves on the maple are arranged in opposite pairs, those of the Liquidambar styraciflua appear alternately on the leaf shoots.
4. It is not only the maple-like leaves of Liquidambar styraciflua that can cause confusion in its identification. The fruits of the tree are known as ‘monkey balls’ and are green when immature but ripen to spiky brown globes that hang on the tree throughout the winter. In this regard, they closely resemble the London plane tree (Platanus x hispanica) but while the fruit of the sweet gum appear singly, those of the London plane are generally in bunches.
5. The timber of Liquidambar styraciflua is dense, close-grained and rots easily, so is of no use in construction.
6. The wood of Liquidambar styraciflua is easily worked and is valued for its use in veneers and furniture – it is the second most commonly cultivated hardwood tree, alongside oak (Quercus robur).
7. Liquidambar styraciflua is native to America, where it thrives in wet and warm conditions, like swamps and bottomlands. In these conditions it can grow as tall as forty five metres (one hundred and fifty feet) but is often much shorter and rarely grows to half that height in Britain.
8. Native Americans and settlers used the sap of Liquidambar styraciflua as chewing gum, and to treat a wide variety of ailments in both humans and domestic animals. The roots and bark were also used to treat skin disorders, diarrhoea, fevers and other ailments.
9. Liquidambar styraciflua has great wildlife value, as mice and rabbits are known to eat immature stems. The seeds are eaten by birds, squirrels and chipmunks.
10. Liquidambar styraciflua can live for more than one hundred and fifty years, but it doesn’t flower or produce seed for the first fifteen to twenty years of its life.