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American Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)

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Summary

A distinctive tree with star-shaped leaves and hard, spiky fruits. Native to eastern North America where it tends to be found on moist to wet sites.

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Native

This tentative map is based on the FHWA's ERA. This data lacks information on Canada, but also overestimates native ranges, especially around the edges, as this post explains. We have not yet reviewed or fixed this map.

USDA Plants Profile for Liquidambar styraciflua

Illinois Wildflowers Page for Liquidambar styraciflua

Fire Effects Information System (FEIS) Article for Liquidambar styraciflua

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Habitat

Sweetgum is most common on moist sites, including floodplains and bottomlands, and depressions and seeps in upland areas. It tolerates poor drainage and areas that flood temporarily, but not prolonged flooding.

Can be a dominant and persistent canopy tree on wet bottomland sites. On better-drained sites and sites with average moisture levels, usually a temporary and only occasional species which colonizes disturbed sites, only scattered trees surviving to persist in the forest canopy, and eventually being replaced by more shade-tolerant species.

Intolerant of frequent fire and generally absent from areas that burn regularly.

Life Cycle

Seedlings develop quickly. The root structure varies considerably by sites. On deeper, well-drained soils, the tree produces a long taproot, but on wet, poorly-drained sites a taproot may be poorly-developed or missing entirely, with the tree developing extensive shallow, spreading roots. On ideal sites the tree may grow as high as 2 feet in the first year. Although seedlings usually grow best in full sun, they can exhibit some shade tolerance on wet sites.

Trees begin producing seed around 20-30 years of age, and continue producing good crops for about 150 years. Significant seed is produced every year, but every 2-3 years there is a somewhat larger crop. Seed is mostly dispersed by wind, with most seed falling with 200ft (60m) from the tree, and some traveling up to 600ft (183m.)

Trees younger than about 50 years of age are able to resprout if top-killed by fire, harvesting, or other mechanical damage. Sprouts grow rapidly, often growing 4.5ft (1.4m) in one season. Although relatively thin-barked, trees have a high capacity for healing from low-intensity fire and mechanical damage, through a gum exuded from the sapwood, which protects the sapwood and allows the bark to regrow. Fire often kills sweetgum by depleting its energy reserves as the tree expends energy to heal.

Uses

The wood is used for lumber, veneer, and plywood. The wood is easy to work, but prone to warping during drying. The sapwood of this species is thick and has poor durability; because the sapwood is so thick, only larger trees yield sufficient heartwood. The heartwood is darker and more durable.

Sometimes used as a landscaping plant, where it is valued for its striking fall color, with a single tree often showing a rainbow of colors including green, yellow, orange, red, and purple, all at the same time.

Some cultivars exist with altered characteristics, including a round-leaved cultivar that is sometimes confused with other species, a "weeping" variety with hanging branches, and a columnar variety with a narrow, upright growth habit.

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