Sweet Gum Tree Types: How To Identify, Grow Gumball Tree (Liquidambar)

Image of a Sweet gum tree (liquidambar) in an oval frame with information on how to identify gumball tree leaves, sweet gum tree seeds, flowers, growth rate chart, and sweet gum uses.

From its sap that makes chewing gum to its foliage that delivers spectacular visuals in the fall, the Sweet Gum Tree is known for its many positive qualities.

These benefits also make it a sought-after tree to plant in private and community properties alike.

But do you know how to identify a Sweet Gum Tree or the best locations and care tips for how to grow these gorgeous autumn trees?

This complete Sweet Gum Tree guide outlines everything you need to know about how to identify them as well as how to make sure the ones you plant or already have continue to flourish and thrive.

Sweet Gum Tree: Facts and Characteristics

The following information about Liquidambar styraciflua can help you learn how to identify Sweet Gum Tree and how to categorize them according to their overall attributes.2, 1

Sweet Gum Tree

(Liquidambar styraciflua)

Sweet Gum Tree in an oval frame on green background.
  • Family: Altingiaceae
  • Genus: Liquidambar
  • Leaf: Yellow in spring/red, yellow, orange, and purple in fall; palmately lobed in a star-like shape
  • Bark: Light gray, scaly, and ridged
  • Seed: Tiny/syncarp
  • Blossoms: Gold/yellow grown in clusters
  • Fruit: Brown, spiky
  • Native Habitat: North America
  • Height: 60-75 feet
  • Canopy: 40-50 feet
  • Type: Deciduous

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species Ranking

Least Concern


Image Credit: 307114526

How To Identify Sweet Gum Tree

You can identify a Sweet Gum Tree with two distinct characteristics in the form of its fruit and leaves.

Since each Sweet Gum Tree has male and female flowers, there are high chances that the tree that you see has already produced highly distinct gumballs and dropped them to the ground around itself.

Sweet Gum tree identification chart showing images of Sweet Gum leaf, Sweet Gum flowers, Sweet Gum seed pod, and Sweet Gum bark in circle frames on green background.

But in cases where you cannot see these gumballs, you can take a look at the leaves and determine if they have the 5- or 7-lobed star shape with toothed edges. In summer, these palmate leaves can be green in color.

In fall, their color can include shades of yellow, orange, red, and purple. This means that you don’t need to learn how many leaves are on a tree of Sweet Gum.

Instead, you only have to be aware of the appearance of these leaves.

What Do Sweet Gum Tree Leaves Look Like?

Sweet Gum Tree leaves have a distinct shape that resembles the leaves of Maple Trees. These palmate leaves possess a long stalk, have a star shape, and boast of 5-7 lobes that spread from the petiole.

Sweet Gum Tree leaves have toothed edges and can reach 4-8 inches in size.2 The leaves are light green to deep green.

But in fall, they turn into a spectacular mixture of colors that include shades of yellow, orange, scarlet, and purple. This fall foliage is one of the many reasons that earns the Sweet Gum Tree its popularity.

What Does Sweet Gum Tree Flower Look Like?

The sweet gum tree flower appears in clusters that have a sphere shape. It is yellow or green in color.

If the flower is female, it produces the gumballs that make the sweet gum tree divisive among gardeners and homeowners.

What Do Sweet Gum Tree Seeds Look Like?

Sweet gum tree seeds are tiny in size and remain encased in the gumball produced by the tree. Each gumball has either one or two seeds in it.15

Close up photo of the sweet gum tree fruit and its yellow leaves.

(Image: Agnieszka Kwiecień, Nova24)

Since Sweet Gum Trees do not respond well to being grown from cuttings,8 these seeds are the ideal way to grow new Sweet Gum Trees.

But if you require these seeds for planting, you need to make sure that you gather them right after the green gumball turns a brown color.

Gumball Tree

Liquidambar styraciflua is also known as Redgum and Red Sweet Gum Tree. It is also popular by the name of Gumball Tree, which comes from its fruiting head that holds a spherical shape and has a spiky appearance that is hard to the touch.

While this Gumball remains quite infamous for causing issues such as injuries and inconvenience when they are dropped to the ground by the tree, the Sweet Gum Tree remains favorable among birds and insects who drink nectar as a source of nutrition. This includes hummingbirds, butterflies, and moths.3

These Gumballs are also an identifying characteristic for the Sweet Gum Tree, because more often than not, you can find these Gumballs strewn around the ground near Liquidambar styraciflua.

The Sweet Gum Tree holds value due to its edible sap that makes chewing gum, its leaves that transform into brilliant fall foliage, and its wood that makes for high-quality timber. This makes it a tree that is just as purposeful to use as it is beautiful to look upon.

This means that if you want to plant the Sweet Gum Tree in your home for the sake of its looks, you can rest assured that it will add aesthetic value to your property under proper care.

Similar to other kinds of trees such as the Maple Tree, the Sweet Gum Tree can also sequester carbon in order to fight climate change.

How Much Carbon Does Sweet Gum Tree Sequester?

Learning how much carbon does a tree capture depends upon a range of factors. These include but are not limited to the tree’s circumference, its height, and its species.

The location in which the tree is planted also plays a part.

The Sweet Gum Tree belongs to the gum species, which has an average carbon sequestration rate of 1.25 tonnes per year.4 Since these trees can grow fast and require little maintenance as compared to many other types of plants, they remain a great choice for carbon sequestration in large quantities, especially in areas and situations where intensive maintenance is not possible.

Sweet Gum Tree Growing Zone: What Do You Need To Know?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) classifies growing zones for different plants. These growing zones are categorized according to environmental conditions and graded according to the annual average minimum winter temperature in the pertinent area.

These grades are labeled from 1-13.

By looking at the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map,5 you can determine whether your area classifies as a Sweet Gum Tree growing zone. To make this process easier for you.

The Sweet Gum Tree grows in USDA zones 5-9. If you live in one of these areas, you can rest assured that the Sweet Gum Trees that you plant can thrive under proper care.

You can also follow specific tips to take care of your Sweet Gum Tree. This can help you steer clear of avoidable problems, while also heightening your chances of success for growing your own Gumball Tree.

Are Sweet Gum Tree and Gumball Tree the Same Plant?

Sweet Gum Trees are also known as gumball trees. This “Gumball” is the fruit of the tree and appears as a green sphere that is spiky all over.

This earns Liquidambar styraciflua the alternative name of Gumball Tree. Upon maturity, the fruit drops from the branches and falls to the ground, where its spikes can cause discomfort and injuries.

This causes many hobbyists, gardeners, and homeowners to look at plants other than the Sweet Gum Tree.

However, if you are concerned about the existence of these gumballs in your yard, you can reach out to arborists who can stop the tree from producing fruit through targeted treatments.6

This can enable you to proudly take care of your Sweet Gum Tree while also saving yourself, loved ones, and other people from being injured or discomforted by the gum balls that it produces.

Is Gumball Production the Biggest Sweet Gum Tree Problems?

One of the most common Sweet Gum Tree problems is the tree’s production of gumballs, which is the tree’s spherical fruit that has a hard shell with spikes all around it. When the Sweet Gum Tree drops a large quantity of these fruits on the ground, they can make cleanup and lawn maintenance difficult.

With that, it can also lead to injuries for those who step on them. If you are intent on growing, you can get an arborist to stop the production of these spiky fruits through maintenance treatment injections.

But these treatments can be pricey.20 This is why, you should take all factors into account and make an informed decision that agrees with your affordability.

Sweet Gum Tree Balls Uses

Are there any Sweet Gum Tree balls uses? Sweet Gum Tree balls, or the fruit that the tree produces, are usually synonymous with problems in lawn care and personal comfort.

But these gumballs actually have a very important use. They contain seeds that could be used to propagate the Sweet Gum Tree population.

These Gumballs are also used by birds to consume the seeds that are enhanced within the hard and spiky shell of the fruit.

How To Stop Sweet Gum Tree Disease: Prevention and Care

Sweet Gum Tree disease prevention requires you to keep an eye on your tree’s health and take the required actions to mitigate damage and promote the tree’s health according to the issue.

For instance, if your Sweet Gum Tree’s bark is turning shiny due to bleeding necrosis,14 you can prune the infected parts of the tree.

Photo of reddish leaves of a sweet gum tree.

(Image: Ch.Brame21)

On the other hand, if your tree gets infected by boring beetles, you may need to use specific medications to ward them off.

Being mindful of these tricky challenges, you should make sure to reach out to a local arborist whenever you notice that your tree is not thriving as it ideally should.

From there, you can get personalized advice that can help your tree with its specific issue and learn how to stop Sweet Gum Tree disease.

Planting Tips for Sweet Gum Tree (Liquidambar styraciflua)

The Sweet Gum Tree has an average lifespan of up to 400 years.7 But in order for it to reach this long life expectancy, you have to make an effort to care for it.

Thankfully, learning this information is not difficult. By going through a few planting tips for Sweet Gum Tree, you can be better equipped to care for them.

When To Plant Sweet Gum Tree for the Best Yield

The Sweet Gum Tree has the best chances to survive and thrive when planted in the spring.8, 9 Once planted, the seeds can germinate within 3-4 weeks.

The planting phase may require some care in terms of mixing different types of soil to grow your Sweet Gum Tree.10 But seeing that the tree requires little maintenance in the long term, you can choose it if you are looking for a plant that does not ask for too much care from your end in the future.

This answers the question “When to plant Sweet Gum Tree for the best yield?”

What Are the Best Growing Conditions for Sweet Gum Tree?

The best-growing conditions for Sweet Gum Tree include:8

  • Loamy soil
  • Full sunlight with little to no shade
  • Moist soil
  • Fertilization every few years

What Are Some Companion Plants for Growing Sweet Gum Tree?

Some companion plants that could be good for your yard along with Sweet Gum Trees include redub and atlas cedar.18

These are good companion plants for growing Sweet Gum Tree, but you should bear in mind that unless you get targeted treatments through an arborist, your Sweet Gum Tree would be producing gumballs that fall on the ground and pose risks of injury and discomfort.

Keeping this in mind, you should place these companion plants away from the immediate ground surrounding your Sweet Gum Tree.

Can You Eat Sweet Gum Balls?

Sweet Gum balls or the fruit of the Sweet Gum Tree is not edible. Apart from the hard shell that is strewn with tiny spikes, it only has one or two seeds encased within it.

However, the sap that is produced through the Sweet Gum Trees is edible and remains in use across products such as chewing gum and medicines.

Can You Use Sweet Gum Wood To Build Something?

You can most certainly use Sweet Gum wood to build something.

Since the Sweet Gum Tree’s wood is close-grained and smooth, it makes for an excellent material for applications such as plywood and furniture.

Semi-focused photo of the the scaly trunk of a sweet gum tree.

(Image: David J. Stang25)

With the name “Satin Walnut,” the wood gained from the Sweet Gum Tree is considered one of the most popular materials for hardwood applications in the U.S.16 It can also be used in construction materials such as cabinetry.

What Are Some Popular Sweet Gum Tree Uses?

The most popular sweet gum tree uses include but are not limited to:3

These applications make the Sweet Gum Tree a highly useful tree that is sought after by many. But if you simply want to plant it to add some fall color to your property, you may certainly do so.

With its striking fall foliage, the Sweet Gum Tree can be an excellent addition to your yard.

Growing Zones for Sweet Gum Tree: Where To Grow?

What are the growing zones for Sweet Gum Tree? Where to grow Sweet Gum Tree?

It’s growing zone ranges include USDA growing zones 5-9. If you live in one of the areas that fall under these zones, you can plant a Sweet Gum Tree with the assurance that it may thrive under your care and effort.

You can also consult with gardeners or arborists in your area to get further recommendations about the suitability of soil and environmental conditions to grow your Liquidambar styraciflua.

What Are the Watering Needs for Sweet Gum Tree Plants?

The Sweet Gum Tree is a low-maintenance tree that may do well with being watered as little as 6 times a month.11 You need to keep the soil around the tree moist to give proper moisture to the roots.

Thus, answering the question “What are the watering needs for Sweet Gum Tree plants?” But similar to taking care of trees such as the Sycamore Tree, you need to steer clear of overwatering your Sweet Gum Tree.12

Sweet Gum Growth Rate: How Long It Takes To Grow Sweet Gum Tree

The Sweet Gum Tree has a moderate to fast growth rate.

At maturity, the tree can reach heights of 60-100 feet.

Sweet Gum tree growth chart graphic showing a full grown Sweet Gum tree and Sweet Gum tree age on the x-axis and Sweet Gum tree height on the y-axis.

In order to reach its maximum height, each Sweet Gum Tree has to go through a few years of growth.

So, how long it takes to grow Sweet Gum Tree? For the first few years, your Sweet Gum Tree may gain around 1-4 feet of height every year.

This growth cycle completes within 5-10 years. Afterward, your Sweet Gum Tree growth rate may slow down to 1 foot per year. In some cases, it may also reach 15 inches per year.9

This growth continues until the tree has reached its full height.

How Far Apart To Plant Sweet Gum Tree

Typically, you should put a distance of approximately 25 feet between each Sweet Gum Tree at the time of planting them.10 Since the tree can reach around 40-50 feet in width, this gives you a rich canopy when the trees are fully grown.

Therefore, answering the question “how far apart to plant Sweet Gum Tree?”

How Much Sunlight Does Sweet Gum Tree Need Each Day?

You may be wondering, how much sunlight does Sweet Gum Tree need each day? The answer is that the Sweet Gum Tree needs full sunlight to grow at an ideal rate.

Close up photo of a sweet gum tree bud.

(Image: AnRo000222)

This means that if your Sweet Gum Tree is planted in a place that has little to no shade, your tree’s growth rate might get affected.8

What Are Some Common Pests of the Sweet Gum Tree?

The Sweet Gum Tree is one of those types of trees that are susceptible to multiple pests.13 These common pests of the Sweet Gum Tree includes the following:

  • Bagworms
  • Fall webworms
  • Wood boring beetles
  • Root boring beetles
  • Sweetgum inscriber

This list might be enough to make you a bit apprehensive about Sweet Gum Tree disease prevention. But tried-and-tested practices such as pruning infected areas and ensuring proper fertilization can help you take care of your Sweet Gum Tree in the long run.14

Since the tree only requires pruning every few years and does not call for intensive care practices,8 it can become one of the easiest plants to tend to within your garden.

Is There a Natural Pest Control for Sweet Gum Tree?

When looking for natural pest control for Sweet Gum Tree, you should steer clear from purchasing any insects or animals as a solution from just about anyone.19 It is because only experienced professionals such as arborists hold the information about which species of natural pest control solutions you should use for a specific problem.

Keeping this in mind, you can discuss your immediate issue with experts to find a suitable answer to your needs instead of looking for general answers about different types of trees.

Is Alkaline Soil Good for Growing Sweet Gum Tree?

Alkaline soil is not favorable for the Sweet Gum Tree. In fact, Sweet Gum Trees thrive in acidic soil.

If you want to get the most benefits out of growing a Sweet Gum Tree, you should go for the latter soil type.

What Should You Know When You Are Growing Sweet Gum Tree From a Seed?

You can start growing Sweet Gum Tree from a seed quite easily.

For this purpose, you need to follow a careful process of sourcing seeds from another tree’s gumballs.

Photo of sweet gum trees in a forest.

(Image: Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz23)

During this search, you have to obtain seeds from fruits that are not broken. This helps heighten your chances for success.

With that being said, growing a Sweet Gum Tree from a cutting is trickier.8 If you want to achieve this feat, you should get a stem cutting that is green in color and doesn’t have wood around it.

This increases the possibility of successfully growing a new Gum Tree from a cutting.

By going through these tips, you can ensure to take care of all the parts of a tree maintenance plan that help you grow healthy and thriving Sweet Gum Trees.

In turn, you can be confident in growing a Sweet Gum Tree from a seedling or seed.

Frequently Asked Questions About Sweet Gum Tree

Is There a Difference Between the Sweet Gum Tree and the Spiky Ball Tree?

The Sweet Gum Tree and the Spiky Ball Tree are commonly used names for the same tree: Liquidambar styraciflua. While the name “Sweet Gum” comes from the tree’s ability to produce sap that can be turned into gum, the name “Spiky Ball” is due to the gumball that is produced by the tree with signature spikes around its spherical shape.

How Sweet Gum Tree Can Help You Make Stunning Fall Foliage a Part of Your Life?

After learning this information about the Sweet Gum Tree, you can weigh the pros and cons of adopting this tree for the foreseeable future. By planting a Sweet Gum Tree, you can make breathtaking fall foliage a part of your home or commercial property, while also doing your part in leaving a reduced carbon footprint on the planet.


1Beech, E., Crowley, D., Rivers, M.C., & Wilson, B. (2018, January 11). American Sweet Gum Liquidambar styraciflua. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2018. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from <https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/33966/67700725>

2N.C. Cooperative Extension. (2023). Liquidambar styraciflua. Liquidambar styraciflua (American Sweet Gum, Redgum, Red Sweet Gum, Sweetgum, Sweet Gum, Sweetgum Tree). North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from <https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/liquidambar-styraciflua/>

3Johnson, T. W. (2023). Out My Backdoor: In Defense of the Sweetgum Tree. Department Of Natural Resources Division. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from <https://georgiawildlife.com/out-my-backdoor-defense-sweetgum-tree>

4Watson, J., & Rogers, K. (2017, February). i-Tree Eco Inventory Report. Exeter University Report DraftV7. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from <https://www.treeconomics.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/Exeter-University-Report-.pdf>

5United States Department of Agriculture. (20112). Plant Hardiness Zones. U.S. FOREST SERVICE Caring for the land and serving people. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from <https://www.fs.usda.gov/wildflowers/Native_Plant_Materials/Native_Gardening/hardinesszones.shtml>

6Davey Tree. (2017, June 29). Getting Rid of Sweetgum Tree Balls. Davey Tree. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from <https://blog.davey.com/getting-rid-of-sweetgum-tree-balls/>

7Augusta Georgia Recreation & Parks. (2023). Sweetgum. Augusta Georgia Recreation & Parks. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from <https://www.augustaga.gov/1636/Sweetgum>

8BEAULIEU, D. (2023, March 6). How to Grow and Care for Sweetgum Trees. the Spruce. Retrieved 23, April, from <https://www.thespruce.com/american-sweetgum-trees-non-fruiting-type-2132095>

9Reed, P. H. (2019, November 22). Facts on the Sweet Gum Tree. SFGATE. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from <https://homeguides.sfgate.com/sweet-gum-tree-27329.html>

10SF Gate Contributor. (2020, December 30). How to Grow Sweetgum Trees From Seed. SFGATE. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from <https://homeguides.sfgate.com/grow-sweetgum-trees-seed-39700.html>

11Picture This. (2023). How to Care for Sweetgum. Picture This. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from <https://www.picturethisai.com/care/Liquidambar_styraciflua.html>

12Hillock, D., & Schnelle, M. (2017, February). Planting Trees and Shrubs. OSU EXTENSION. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from <https://extension.okstate.edu/fact-sheets/planting-trees-and-shrubs.html>

13Kalaman, H. (2022, March 10). The sweetgum inscriber: A potential new pest of American sweetgum trees. UF/IFAS Blogs. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from <https://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/pestalert/2022/03/10/the-sweetgum-inscriber-a-potential-new-pest-of-american-sweetgum-trees/>

14CONNECTICUT’S OFFICIAL STATE WEBSITE. (2023). Sweet Gum (Liquidambar). The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from <https://portal.ct.gov/CAES/Plant-Pest-Handbook/pphS/Sweet-Gum-Liquidambar>

15University of Kentucky, College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. (2023). SWEETGUM (LIQUIDAMBAR STYRACIFLUA). University of Kentucky, College of Agriculture, Food and Environment. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from <https://www.uky.edu/hort/propagation-sweetgum>

16Wikipedia. (2023). Liquidambar styraciflua. Liquidambar styraciflua. Wikipedia. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquidambar_styraciflua>

17Lingbeck, J. .., O’Bryan, C. A., Martin, E. M., Adam, J. P., & Crandall, P. G. (2015, June). Sweetgum: An ancient source of beneficial compounds with modern benefits. NIH National Library of Medicine. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4441155/>

18Gardenia. (2023). Liquidambar styraciflua (Sweet Gum). Gardenia. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from <https://www.gardenia.net/plant/liquidambar-styraciflua>

19City of Fort Lauderdale. (2023). NATURAL PEST CONTROL. Green Your Routine. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from <https://gyr.fortlauderdale.gov/greener-government/natural-resources-preservation/wildlife-habitats/our-wild-neighbors/natural-pest-control>

20Pettis, S. (2021, December 14). Plant Health Alert – Preventing Sweet Gum Tree Fruit. NC COOPERATIVE EXTENSION. Retrieved April 23, 2023, from <https://henderson.ces.ncsu.edu/2021/12/plant-health-alert-preventing-sweet-gum-tree-fruit/>

21Liquidambar styraciflua variété ‘Worplesdon’ (IdG) Photo by Ch.Brame / Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) . Resized. From Wikimedia Commons <https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/22/Liquidambar_styraciflua_vari%C3%A9t%C3%A9_%27Worplesdon%27_%28IdG%29.jpg>

2220140331Liquidambar styraciflua Photo by AnRo0002. Wikimedia Commons. Retrieved from <https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/50/20140331Liquidambar_styraciflua.jpg>

23Liquidambar styraciflua kz2 Photo by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz / Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) . Resized. From Wikimedia Commons <https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/14/Liquidambar_styraciflua_kz2.jpg>

24Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Worplesdon’ Ambrowiec amerykański 2021-10-02 04 Photo by Agnieszka Kwiecień, Nova / Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) . Resized. From Wikimedia Commons <https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2d/Liquidambar_styraciflua_%27Worplesdon%27_Ambrowiec_ameryka%C5%84ski_2021-10-02_04.jpg>

25Liquidambar styraciflua 15zz Photo by Photo by David J. Stang / Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0) . Resized. From Wikimedia Commons <https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/13/Liquidambar_styraciflua_15zz.jpg>

26Tree, Sheets, Tomorrow Photo by 3071145. (2017, July 2). Pixabay Content License. Cropped and remixed with text, shape, and background elements. Pixabay. Retrieved February 8, 2024, from <https://pixabay.com/photos/tree-sheets-tomorrow-sweetgum-2466476/>

27Featured Image: Fall maple tree Photo by Aaron Burden. (2015, October 10) / Unsplash License. Cropped and remixed with text, shape, and background. Unsplash. Retrieved February 8, 2024, from <https://unsplash.com/photos/red-and-brown-leafy-tree-at-daytime-Bn2rzIYM53g>