American Sweet Gum Tree

In early November, the autumn colors have peaked already here in central Ohio. Many of the very colorful Maple trees have lost their leaves already.  There is, however, one very handsome tree species that still puts on a fiery show.

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This is the American Sweet Gum Tree.  As you can see, this tree has a fairly unique color scheme in autumn, somewhere between bright Maples and darker Oak hues.

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A very distinctive feature of the Sweet Gum is its 5-pointed almost starfish-shaped leaves.  These leaves are glossy green in the summer.

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Sweetgum, native to the lower two-thirds of the Eastern United States and parts of Mexico, is only found naturally in Ohio in its southernmost counties, but is planted throughout most of the state as a shade tree prized for its brilliant fall colors and rapid growth. The name Sweetgum comes from the taste of its hardened sap that bleeds from wounds on the tree.

The hard-to-split wood is used as veneer and stained other colors to mimic other types of wood. While most commonly found in the wild in floodplains, river bottoms, and moist woodland sites where it may reach 80 feet tall and 40 feet wide, it adapts well to dry soils in urban situations. As a member of the Witchhazel Family, it is related to Fothergilla, Witchhazel, and other Sweetgum.

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Although Sweet Gums don’t grow naturally in central Ohio, they are seen often enough as ornamental trees in yards and as native trees planted in parks.  You can drive less than 100 miles south of here and see them growing naturally in the wild, along the Ohio River valley.

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Another prominent feature of Sweet Gums are the seed capsules, are often called gum balls or sticker balls.  These spiked seed containers can be seen on the trees long after the leaves have fallen.  This is one feature of the tree that might keep homeowners from planting a lot of them- a carpet of spiky balls beneath the tree can be a bit rough on the lawn mower!

I’ve seen birds such as Goldfinches and Crossbills breaking through these spiky containers to get at the seeds within.

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Sweet Gums are an attractive tree that help give the autumn color show an extra bump up.  I enjoy their presence.

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