If you look upwards and see layer upon layer of vibrant green suspended stars you may have found a Sweet Gum Tree, scientifically known as Liquidambar styraciflua.
Although the leaves have a similar shape to some maple leaves, a quick check of the leaf growth pattern can confirm the tree’s identity. Maple leaves form opposite of each other while the leaves of the Sweet Gum form alternately as shown in the botanical image below.
Our Sweet Gum tree is located on the edge of Bayne Park along North Balph Avenue near the flagpole. Aside from the recognizable star-shaped leaves with serrated edges on long petioles, there are other distinctive traits that makes this tree easy to identify.
Look overhead for spiky dangling spherical fruits. They can also be found scattered on the ground once they have dried and fallen.
Mature trees often have corky bark that protrudes from the smaller branches and twigs giving them a winged appearance.
Both male flowers and female flowers occur on the same tree, appearing as the leaves emerge in the Spring. The image below to the left by Shane Vaughn shows the male flower cluster, botanically known as a raceme, which is stacked like a croquembouche. The female flower head droops downward from a two-inch long light green peduncle, or stem. Once the female flower has been wind pollinated, it forms a green spiky cluster which is an aggregate of fruit. The male flower clusters fall to the ground.
The green spiny fruit clusters become dry and brown during the late Summer. The image below shows one that has opened to release its tiny papery winged seeds from its many seed-bearing capsules. The seeds are dispersed by the wind, birds, or animals. The brown spiky balls can persist on the tree through the Winter, and they are particularly beautiful with a light dusting of snow. They eventually drop to the ground before Spring, and they are infamously known for their sharp woody hornlike projections that make walking barefoot beneath a Sweet Gum tree an ill-advised endeavor.
The tiny seeds of the Sweet Gum are eaten by many species of birds, including goldfinch, purple finch, sparrows, mourning doves, squirrels, and chipmunks. Yellow-bellied sapsuckers are attracted by the sweet sap, evidence of their visitation can be noted by rows of small holes marking the trunk.
The brownish-grey bark is deeply furrowed with narrow scaly ridges. If the trunk or branch of a Sweet Gum is damaged, the tree exudes an amber-colored resin that thickens into a gum which ultimately hardens. The genus portion of its Latin name Liquidambar refers to the resins liquid form and similar appearance to amber, which is fossilized resin. The common name Sweet Gum comes from the sweet tasting and gummy consistency of its resin.
Have you wondered why a tree would produce sticky or gummy resin? The resin rapidly seals over bark wounds and dries to form a protective layer. Sticky and aromatic, it may also help to deter burrowing insects.
In addition to the resin being sweet, the green leaves have a delightfully sweet aroma when crushed.
Notice the intensity and depth of color in the image below by Jorge Franganillo. Sweet Gum trees present a long-lasting kaleidoscopic display in the Autumn with spectacularly brilliant colors ranging from red to purple to yellow. Interestingly, the various hues are often exhibited on the same tree.
The larva of the Regal Moth, known as the Hickory Horned Devil can be found dining upon the leaves of the Sweet Gum. The black-tipped red horns give this caterpillar a menacing appearance, but it is harmless. Known as one of the largest caterpillars in North America it can grow to the size of a hotdog. In the late Summer it leaves the tree and wanders on the ground. Once it has found a suitable location, it burrows into the soil to pupate through the Winter. During the following summer the adult moth emerges from the ground, climbing nearby vegetation to expand its wings.
The National 9/11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center site in New York generously donated a grove of forty Sweet Gum trees to the Flight 93 National Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania to commemorate the lives of the forty passengers and crew members of United Flight 93.
The thirty-foot tall trees traveled from New Jersey in specialized flatbed trailers. The ceremonial planting of the first three trees occurred near the Flight 93 National Memorial’s visitor shelter and memorial walk in 2011. The remaining trees were subsequently placed between the wall of names and the western overlook.
Sweetgum wood is used to make veneer, plywood, cabinets and furniture. People also collect the spiny fruit clusters when they are dry and brown, often coating them with spray paint to create a variety of crafts.
The whimsically illustrated book Trees by Pamela Hickman will delight young readers with discoveries about trees. Learn how different trees grow through the seasons, obtain tips on tree identification, and gain an understanding of how vital trees are to the environment. With the knowledge that a variety of animals, insects, and birds can all share a single tree as a home, children will look at trees more deeply and with fresh eyes!
Trees of Pennsylvania and the Northeast by Charles Fergus covers over fifty trees found in our region. For those who are starting to learn about tree identification, books that focus on the trees you are most likely to see in the environment around you are the most effective.
Learn more about all the Trees of Bayne Park and explore our Interactive Bayne Park Tree Map to see the locations, photographs, and names of over a dozen different species of trees. Be sure to also visit our Treesources page to learn about local trees, caring for trees, and more.
This post written by Linda, 7/21/20