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American Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua L.)

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American Sweetgum
Photo © Scott Loarie, Public Domain.


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.

Range - Expand

Native or Not Present
Introduced or Not Present
Native or Expanded

This map is based on our research. We have checked its accuracy to Level 3 ecoregions. Although this plant occurs somewhere in each of these regions, it may only occur in a small part of some or all of them.

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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.


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.

This is the only Liquidambar species in North America, and there are no other genera in the Altingiaceae family. The broader Saxifragales order is a huge grouping that contains many native and introduced species.

Of these, the most closely related genera that are also found in North America include plants of two families. The Witch-Hazel family (Hamamelidaceae) includes three native Hamamelis sp., along with the introduce Chinese fringe flower (Loropetalum chinense). The Cercidiphyllaceae family includes the introduced katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum). Slightly less closely related is the Paeoniaceae family, which contains only peonies (Paeonia sp.) of which only introduced species overlap with sweetgum in range.

Sweetgum | The Wood Database (About This Site)

Sweetgum | Fire Effects Information System (FEIS) (About This Site)

Liquidambar styraciflua (Sweet Gum) | Illinois Wildflowers (About This Site)

Liquidambar styraciflua (American Sweetgum) | USDA PLANTS Database (About This Site)

Liquidambar styraciflua | Go Botany (About This Site)

Liquidambar styraciflua (Sweet Gum) | Missouri Botanical Garden Plant Finder (About This Site)

Sweetgum | Virginia Tech Dendrology Factsheets (About This Site)

Sweetgum | Silvics of North America (About This Site)

Liquidambar styraciflua | Biota of North America Project (BONAP) (About This Site)

Liquidambar styraciflua | NatureServe Explorer (About This Site)

Liquidambar styraciflua | Flora of North America (About This Site)

Sweet Gum | Maryland Biodiversity Project (About This Site)

Photo gallery

Photo © Jesse Rorabaugh, Public Domain.
Photo © Robb Hannawacker, Public Domain.
Photo © Scott Loarie, Public Domain.
Photo © mefisher, Public Domain.
Photo © Michael Ellis, CC BY 4.0.
Photo © Melissa McMasters, CC BY 4.0.
Photo © Michael Ellis, CC BY 4.0.
Photo © Alison Northup, CC BY 4.0.
Photo © Judy Gallagher, CC BY 4.0.