Tree of The Week: Liquidambar styraciflua

I am starting a new series called, “Tree of The Week”.  Each week I will be posting information about a specific tree species.  I know not everyone is from the same part of the country, so I will try to spread the love around.
If you would like to practice, or learn, trees along with me please do so. It is always more fun to learn something with someone else.  Let me know how it is going.
My main resource at home is a book I have been using for many years, Trees of the Central Hardwood Forests of North America. This book also served me well when I worked in the South, though I would not recommend it be your sole resource if you live there. I will add links, especially, to images online.  The real life thing is best, but pictures work if you are unable to have a live example in front of you.


The past couple of weeks I have taken several walks and always seem to be stepping on sweetgum balls.  So much so that I used them as an impromptu nature study lesson.  It started off by telling them what they were called (though at the time I had a bit of forgetfulness and call them “gum balls”).  Next I played the “can you find the tree this came from?” game.  That was pretty easy for the kids to figure out as there were plenty still on the trees.

I was not sure if any of it stuck. On the next walk one of the kids pointed to the balls and named them.  What?!  They were listening and remembered?! Positive praise was definitely in order.  “Good job remembering!  That’s right.”  So then we played the games of  “Can you find another tree that is the same?  One that is just like this one.”  Thankfully the next few trees we saw also had a companion. Hint: I did check the first time to make sure there was indeed a tree just like it in the yard.  I even pointed to some that were different, so they were sure to actually look and see if it was the same.

After that, every sweetgum tree we saw was pointed out to me with great excitement.  Being as I love trees, I always hoped to pass on some knowledge but was not sure how early to do so.  Well, it seems the answer landed in my lap without me having to figure it out.  I will save the harder lessons (telling trees apart by buds and bark) for a few years down the road.  Those concepts are still introduced in a very basic way (smooth vs. rough, bumpy vs. lines, white vs. dark, etc.)

This also reminded me that I have really been meaning to refresh my memory of trees.  I used to know a lot of them for work, though it has never been my strong suit.  Their interest lately and the quickness of learning made me think that I could refresh my memory along with teaching them.  They may not be able to tell a red oak from a bur oak, yet, but that does not mean that I can not keep pointing them out.  I will probably start them out on something easier next, like a sycamore.  We will save the bur oak lesson for a later date.



Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)

Common name: sweetgum, redgum
Genus: Liquidambar
Species: styraciflua
Family: Hamamelicdaceae (witch-hazel family)

Identifying characteristics: 5-point star shaped leaves, fruit is the shape of a ball with “cones” protruding out all over it

Other links: – has some really good up close photos of the bark – has a map showing distribution

W.D. Brush @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database



Steve Hurst @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database