Plant of The Month - November 2012

Liquidambar styraciflua (Sweet Gum Tree) 

I have a prickle ball tree in my front yard.
You may argue with me,
saying, “that is not its name.
It’s a sweet gum tree,
in Latin, Liquidambar styraciflua L.”
Call it what you will.
A prickle ball tree by any other name
still makes a mess of the lawn.

This striking tree can be located at the Gardens in the first bed past My Lady's Border in the Upper Wilderness:

Description and History:

A Spanish naturalist by the name of Hernandez was the first European to discover the liquidambar or sweet gum tree in the early 16th century. It was given its botanical name because of its aromatic gum, which he described as 'liquid amber'. However, it wasn't until 1681 that it was finally introduced to Britain by the missionary plant collector John Bannister.

It was almost certainly amongst the collections made by the famous early botanist and explorer Mark Catesby, in the south-eastern United States in the early 18th century, and in cultivation in Europe by the time it was described by Linnaeus. 

The tree is named for the reddish resin that exudes from the bark known as storax .

In the UK it is planted solely for the magnificent colours of its autumn foliage but in its native habitat, especially in Mexico, it is cultivated for this liquid amber. The pleasant smelling gum is routinely used in adhesives, perfumes and in incense.

Liquidambar styraciflua is native to the eastern part of the United States, particularly the south-east, as well as Mexico and Guatemala. It is often found in swampy regions. In these conditions it can grow as tall as 45m (150ft) but is often much shorter and rarely grows to half that height in Britain.

While it prefers warm and wet conditions, it is reasonably hardy and can survive as long as there is sufficient moisture in the soil. It has certainly become increasingly popular in the south of England, which is perhaps a sign that the climate really is changing. 

Often mistaken for a maple, Liquidambar styraciflua has similarly-shaped five-lobed leaves. However, while the leaves on the maple are arranged in opposite pairs, those of the liquidambar appear alternately on the leaf shoots. In autumn, these leaves turn brilliant shades of purple, crimson, orange and yellow, making it a popular ornamental tree. 

It is not only the maple-like leaves of Liquidambar styraciflua that can cause confusion in its identification. The fruits of the tree are known as 'monkey balls' and are green when immature but ripen to spiky brown globes that hang on the tree throughout the winter. 

Photograph by Dan Murtha - This photograph is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence.
In this regard, they closely resemble the London plane (Platanus x hispanica) but while the fruit of the sweet gum appear singly, those of the London plane are generally in bunches.

Although the wood of the tree is dense and fine-grained, it rots easily and so is of no use in construction. However, it is easily worked and has been known to be used for veneers and furniture.


The tree enjoys full sun ,and part shade and does well in lime-free soil (Loam, Clay or Sand). Soil must be well drained, may be acid or neutral. Propagate by semi-hardwood cuttings.

Liquidambar was formerly placed in the witch-hazel family, Hamamelidaceae, but, on the basis of recent research, is now placed in the family Altingiaceae, along with the genus Altingia

Medicinal Uses:

Note: The information below is for entertainment purposes only, and may be dangerous in practise.  Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens Trust accepts no responsibility for any consequences of self-medication using this information.

The sweetgum tree's liquid-amber is an aromatic substance. When made into a balsam or salve, it is used for skin conditions, hemorroids, ringworm scabies and frostbite. Sweetgum salves have a minor antiseptic value, and can be used as an anti-inflammatory. It has also been used internally for sore-throats, coughs and colds. 

The odorous resin "Storax" is obtained from the trunk of the sweetgum. It forms in the conclaves of the bark and exudes naturally. Harvested in autumn, the production of this resin is often stimulated by pounding on the trunk months before. The common medicinal use for Storax is as a parasiticide. Storax oil is often used in combination with ingredients to create medicinal oils and balms. These mixtures are used to treat acne, skin-sores, as an astringent, or as a healing lubricant for dry and itchy skin.


The only piece of interesting folklore I can find for the Sweet Gum Tree involves Owls. It is described in a bizarre little folk-rhyme, the quality and content of which I will leave for you to judge:

‘When you hear the screech owl, honey, in the sweet gum tree,
It’s a sign as sure as you’re born a death is bound to be;
Unless you put the shovel in the fire mighty quick,
For to conjure that old screech owl, take care the one that’s sick.’

So that's Liquidambar styraciflua; Another fascinating Plant for you to visit at Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens. Why not come and see it for yourself?

Thanks to:

Gordon Sammons

Wikimedia Commons
Kew Gardens
Mystical World Wide Web

Creative Commons Licence
The photographs (unless elsewhere attributed are by Graham High are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

1 comment:

  1. Another great and interesting "Plant of the Month" post Graham. I saw the tree when I was at the Gardens last week and so glad I now know its name and so much of interest about it :)