The American sweet gum tree, Liquidambar styraciflua, grows in eastern woodlands from southern Connecticut to northern Illinois to Texas to central Florida. Sweet gum trees may reach heights from 80 to 150 feet, and they may spread to 45 feet wide. The trunk of a mature gum tree may be five feet in diameter. Gum trees can grow in moderately moist soil conditions, but they prefer wet bottomland areas along creeks and river banks. American sweet gum is also known as redgum, gumtree, star-leaved gum and alligator wood.
The American sweet gum tree was so named because of the amber-colored, resinous sweet sap that was scraped from the inside of the bark to produce a chewing gum-like substance. Native Americans and pioneers also used the sap for a number of medicinal purposes.
Sweet gum leaves are glossy and dark green in the summer. The leaves are star-shaped, with five or seven pointed lobes and finely serrated edges. Leaves commonly measure 7 inches across. The bark is furrowed, rough and scaly, hence the nickname alligator wood. Sweet gum seed pods, sometimes called gumballs, are spiny orbs produced from the clusters of small flowers that appear in spring. The distinctive seed pods are one way to easily identify a sweet gum tree. The gumballs cling to the tree throughout the winter and drop to the ground in the spring. Most of the small, black seeds contained within the gumballs do not germinate, but are eaten by squirrels and birds.
Sweet gum wood is the second most utilized commercial wood in the United States, after oak. The fine hardwood is used to make flooring, furniture and veneers, cabinetry and paneling. Gum is used for basketry, barrels and items such as wooden bowls and boxes. It is also used for paper and pulp products.
The brilliant fall colors and large, spreading size make sweet gum a sought-after species of shade tree for landscaping. The foliage ranges from yellow, golden, deep orange, fiery red to deep purple; sweet gum is one of the last species to drop its leaves in the fall. Before deciding to plant a sweet gum tree in your yard, remember that many people consider the multitude of gumballs to be a nuisance to keep cleaned up.