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Monday, March 28, 2011

Liquidambar styraciflua - American Sweetgum

Ah yes, the poor Liquidambar, so out of its native element that it can't even drop its leaves. Native to the east-coast and down past Texas and into Mexico resulting in trees that go dormant early winter and those that wait until spring. Those grown here seem to have more of the semi-evergreen.

To illustrate this range, this is a picture taken the last week of January at the Temple Beth El on Soquel showing the variability of the trees. Notice there are 2 completely deciduous with almost identical habits, one smaller red one and a larger green/orange one behind it. (The smaller green on up against the building is not the same species. There is also a larger one behind the building showing more red and green.)

The American sweetgum is a fast growing, very large semi-deciduous to deciduous tree, up to 85' or so, but generally 40' or so here. Width is about 2/3 the height depending on the cultivar. They usually have a nice large straight truck, especially in their native habit. When young they are pyramidal. They are also bigger than most people want, so they end up getting pruned improperly. They will develop codominate stems if not watched carefully. This picture shows why an architect wants to use named cultivars, so they are all the same.

On Bay in Capitola.

The leaves are very distinct (though a cultivar called 'Rotundaloba' defies this statement). They are palmately lobed with 5 pointed lobes (sometimes 7). The lobes are finely toothed. Leaf size is about 4-7" long and wide. They somewhat resemble a maple leaf, but are arranged alternately on the stem (one per node, maples have 2 leaves at each attachment point). Summer leaves are very dark but bright green.

Flowers are clustered in heads, males and females separated spacially, like a good private school. Females are in small clusters on a short stalk.

Fruit develops from the round female cluster into a nasty little capsule. These 1" capsules are hard, sharp and prolifically produced. Sometimes called ankle bitters or ankle twisters.

Here they are covering the ground, lots of fun.

Fall color, or should I say winter to spring color can be fantastic. Reds, purples, oranges to yellows. Very beautiful and lasting a long long time. In the spring the new leaves actually have to push off the old ones. I was riding my bike about the first of April and saw what looked like a huge puple leaf plum having finished blooming, so I went to investigate, low and behold a liquidambar still with fall color.

Stems can be smooth or they can have neat looking corky ridges. The tree either has corky or not, its not something that might come along.

Very commonly planted street tree, lawn tree and such. Be very careful, it will more likely be too large for your location and they have a well deserved reputation of lifting sidewalks. Keep the trees 8-10' from any concrete to help avoid this problem.

'Festival', columnar form, light green foliage and reds to oranges in fall.

'Palo Alto', Pyramidal form, rich green leaves and bright red-orange fall color, uniformly over the whole tree, introduced by the Saratoga Horticultural society

'Burgundy' Wine red to deep purple red fall color; may persist into winter.

'Silver King' from Spokane

I don't think so, some leaves might look like a maple, but maples have opposite leaves.

Santa Cruz
305 Effey is a massive specimen.

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