October: Sweetgum

For most of the year, it can be easy to overlook shade trees as exciting plants. But once fall arrives, we can't look away from the colors. Sweetgum trees are some of the most stunning you'll find. With pale yellow, rich gold, vibrant orange, scarlet, and deep maroon - sometimes all at once on the same tree - they deserve at least as much attention as everyone's favorite maple.

Sweetgum is a deciduous shade tree native to the southern and eastern US. You may also know it as gumball tree or spike ball tree for its spiny seed pods, which are neat looking but can be a pain to step on. Its star-shaped leaves are often mistaken for maple leaves, but if you don't have the spike balls to give it away, you can look at the branches: for maple trees, the leaves and branches grow directly across from each other, and for sweetgum trees they are staggered back and forth on either side of the branch.

Common Name: sweetgum (or sweet gum)

Scientific Name: Liquidambar styraciflua

Notable Varieties: Hapdell (doesn't have seed balls), Rotundiloba (rounded leaf lobes)

Light: full sun

Size: 60-80' tall, 40-60' wide

Soil: tolerates a wide range of soil types, but not high pH

Other Notes: low-maintenance, few insect and disease problems, good fall color, fragrant sap and leaves

See other plants of the month.


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