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Sweet Gums Add Great Fall Color
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
A couple weeks passed before I told anyone I'd purchased a sweet gum tree from a local garden center. The laughter subsided days later and ended with friends trying to sell me all kinds of things, including beachfront property in Arizona.
I confess to thinking the sweet gum is one of the prettiest and easiest to grow trees for the urban landscape. The sweet gum is native to the southeastern United States, and it is should be perfectly obvious that they like our climate. Its botanical name, Liquidambar styraciflua, comes from its fluid, amber-colored sap. Some of the prettiest pieces of furniture in my house were made of sweet gum at the turn of the century.
If you will pause to consider it, you will find the sweet gum has many strong attributes. The green palmate foliage is as pretty as a Japanese maple and turns fiery shades of orange, yellow-red and purples, many times all on one tree. The color is almost as good as a sugar maple, yet many scorn it for those sweet-gum balls.
The solution is very simple ñ wear shoes when the balls are on the ground. You can always rake them up like you do pine cones. The sweet gum balls are perfect for painting gold and using on wreaths or other holiday decorations. By the way, nature lovers hoard sweet gum balls and its seed to feed 25 species of birds, squirrels and chipmunks.
Plant your sweet gum in full sun for best fall color. The sweet gum excels as a specimen or planted in informal groups or groves. They provide good shade and maintain that pyramidal form for years before spreading out into a large canopy. The tree grows as fast as three feet per year, is easy to grow and considered a survivor.
The dormant season is an excellent time to plant deciduous trees like the sweet gum. Dig your planting hole two to three times larger than the root ball but no deeper. You want the root ball to be at the same depth as the soil profile.
If you are still rolling in laughter at my promoting the sweet gum, here is more feed for your hysteria. People in Fort Worth and Dallas spend hundreds of dollars adding sulfur to help acidify their soil so they can grow sweet gums. Why? Because it is a great tree!
If you hate the balls so much, one other good option is a fruitless sweet gum variety called rotundiloba. The leaves are striking, but have rounded points. These trees are being evaluated at Mississippi State University test sites in several locations.
If you decide to shop for sweet gums, in addition to the fruitless rotundiloba, varieties like Festival, Autumn Gold and Burgundy all are known for great fall color. In Michael Dirr's book "Manual of Woody Landscape Plants," he lists almost 30 varieties of sweet gums available to your local garden center. Why so many? Because this is an outstanding tree.
I tell people still concerned about the sweet-gum balls to wear shoes and think of them like acorns or pine cones. The sweet gum is too good a tree to pass up. And please do not send offers for me to buy any bridges, either.