Spectacular sweet gum is worth sticking with
THE sweet gum tree is one of the most spectacular autumn-colour trees, when it is at its best. An upright tree, the foliage turns dull purple from early autumn, slowly changing to shades of crimson red and orange, sometimes yellow, as the green washes out. The leaves last a long time on the tree from start to finish.
Originally from the south-eastern states of the United States, it is even more brilliant in areas of warm climate. It is stunning in California and on the continent, where the summers are more sunny and warmer. The American sweet gum, Liquidambar styraciflua, was introduced to Spain in the 16th century.
It gets the common name from its production of a sweet-smelling gum. The gum hardens as it dries and forms a yellow material like amber.
The gum was prized in earlier times for treating various skin ailments, as a form of balsam, but it is now thought to have little, if any, medicinal value.
The gum is used in perfumery because of its sweet smell and was traditionally used to perfume gloves. The wood of sweet gum has a rich reddish brown colour and has been much used for furniture-making, especially as veneer for cabinets.
Sweet gum is a member of the witch hazel family. Most of this family are very good for autumn colour, including the witch hazel itself, Persian ironwood and fothergilla. While the foliage of all of the latter three is similar in shape and structure, the foliage of sweet gum looks much like that of maple.
The leaves are divided into five or seven pointed lobes in this species, exactly like many species of maple, and sometimes, in error, maple gets the credit for the colour that sweet gum shows. The easiest way to separate the two is that maples have pairs of leaves opposed to each other, while the leaves of sweet gum alternate along the twig.
Although the tree is hardy, it is common for young sweet gum trees to suffer damage by frost to the tips of the stems, and young soft trees can be killed outright. The problem is that the wood sometimes does not get enough sunshine here to ripen fully. It does best in well-drained soil that toughens the stems. Sweet gum does not make a large tree in this climate and fits into most gardens.
Sweet gum colours best in acidic soil, and in full sunshine, but it can be grown in limy soil as long as the soil is deep. Give it some space on its own where it is not in competition with other trees and shrubs and it gets a good start.
This tree is worth the trouble and will be enjoyed for years.