When we bought our house almost a decade ago, the narrow strip of turf along the north side of the driveway was interrupted by a row four small trees, one crabapple and three sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua). From their size when we moved in, it appeared they were planted by the original owner when the lot was developed seven years earlier. Sweetgum was not a tree I was familiar with at the time, and the dried seed pods (“syncarp of dehiscent capsules” according to Dirr) on the juvenile trees seemed quite ornamental in the early spring. For those of you who have lived in proximity to sweetgum, I do not hold you in contempt for snickering at that last sentence.
Flash forward to the present and the beginning of the Great Sweetgum Debate. The trees have grown to approximately 20-22 feet tall and, as I look out my office window this morning, are glowing in the morning November sun with the most amazing variety of fall color I have ever seen. Leaves on the same tree vary from deep red, a purple that is almost black, yellow, orange and still some green.
Even between trees, the fall foliage varies greatly. The easternmost tree is decidedly more yellow, the middle more orange, and the westernmost more purple.
Autumn is certainly the time for the sweetgum to shine, but it holds its own in other seasons too.
In summer, the new fruit emerges in a burst of rusty red against a background of dark, glossy green leaves.
The dried fruit that remains gives a winter texture missing from most other deciduous trees.
In late winter, when we get most of our heavier winter precipitation, the fruit and leaf buds provide a picturesque base for snow and ice. The leaf buds of sweetgum, scaled with a leathery, shellacked surface come in a close second to magnolia for winter textural interest in and beautiful in their spring swelling and emergence.
With so many good qualities in the home landscape, what is the debate? Dirr (in his Manual of Woody Lanscape Plants) has “taken offense” at this tree which he describes as a “maintenance liability as a street or general lawn tree.” A horticultural colleague of mine, upon pulling into my driveway for the first time, exclaimed, “I hope you weren’t the one who planted the sweetgum.”
The debate hinges on the sweetgum fruit, those spiky orbs that give the tree such winter interest. But from late winter to spring, those fruit fall. And fall. And fall. Our sweetgum are still young, in general terms, and the fruit fall is still at a manageable level. We clean them up each spring, and send them off for recycling with the rest of our yard waste. But the future will be different. Within the next few years, the branches of the three sweetgum on trial here will be overhanging the driveway, and their produce will be more difficult to ignore as we walk and drive over them. If I try to imagine the fruit fall from the much larger sweetgum I have seen around campus and impose that on our driveway area, I can’t ignore the likelihood that these now-beautiful trees will become more trouble than they are worth.
The westernmost sweetgum may be making an easy decision for us. For the past several seasons, its growth has lagged behind its neighbors, and shows signs of damage up one side of the trunk. It is closest to the crabapple, whose branch spread has now enveloped its lower trunk. All these factors are pointing towards a chainsaw in its near future.
The fate of the remaining two sweetgum is less clear. Without a doubt, the sweetgum is near the top of my favorite tree list when it comes to foliage, visual texture, and autumn color. I suppose only time will tell if their maintenance needs will outweigh the pleasure I get from their presence.