Sweetgum is one of our most common wild and cultivated trees


Sweetgums are everywhere. Walk through any southern neighborhood and you’ll see them. Take a hike into any woodland in the southeastern United States and you’ll have no trouble finding them.

One reason sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) is so prevalent in the wild is that it is not high on the logging priorities list. Sweetgum timber is not highly sought-after even though individual trees might produce hundreds of board feet of wood.

It also is commonly found in mixed stands. Mixed stands are usually harvested selectively. This leads to the problem where sweetgum dominates and often shades out more desirable timber species.

As shade trees in our yards, sweetgums have many good points. They grow fast, generally require little pruning and tolerate a wide range of soil conditions. They even tolerate flooding fairly well. Shallow soils are a problem, but all our soils in eastern North Carolina are deep. Only in mountainous places with shallow rocky soils do they struggle. Sweetgums also live for a long time and have beautiful fall foliage.

As landscape trees they also have some troublesome features. Those nasty gumballs quickly come to mind. Plant breeders have somewhat rectified that problem by developing fruitless cultivars. If you’re considering incorporating sweetgums into a new landscape I suggest seeking these improved varieties out.

The other main landscape drawback is their aggressive root system. It’s one reason they grow so well and have such value as conservation trees. Planting them too close to pavement is problematic as roots will crack concrete or asphalt roads and sidewalks.

Establishing them too close to the house is also a bad idea. I’d suggest no closer than ten feet from sidewalks and maybe double that from foundations. They are big trees so they need to be further out into the yard anyway.

Sweetgums are prolific seed producers. They also reproduce profusely from root sprouts. Many come up around the edges of our property and are often allowed to grow. A while ago someone told me he was clearing a bunch of sweetgums from the back of his lot and asked me about their use as firewood. I laughed, which didn’t exactly please him.

In theory, sweetgum trees would make decent firewood. They have moderate density and are usually fairly straight and buck up pretty easily with a chainsaw. The problem is that their best use as firewood is as a chopping block. Sweetgum wood is very difficult to split.

As I discussed a few weeks ago, proper seasoning is essential to produce good firewood. Any type of wood that is difficult to split will not season well. Green firewood will not burn hot and efficiently, which means material will build up in the flue. That’s bad.

A hydraulic log splitter does a decent job splitting sweetgum small enough to season well, but the pieces still fray and twist, making stacking difficult. When properly seasoned the wood burns quickly and doesn’t produce strong overnight coals, so it’s better for use when it can be tended regularly.

Many young specimens like this volunteer have thick corky ridges on the stems

Many young specimens like this volunteer have thick corky ridges on the stems

Even in late winter the gumballs still litter the streets

Even in late winter the gumballs still litter the streets

Even on the last day of February more prickly fruits still reside in the trees

Even on the last day of February more prickly fruits still reside in the trees

Sweetgum and sycamore fruits on the side of the road

Sweetgum and sycamore fruits on the side of the road

Plenty more sycamore fruits still rest in the trees too

Plenty more sycamore fruits still rest in the trees too

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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