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Ornamental Sweet Gum

The state champion sweet gum tree can be found on the shore of Number One Pond.

Ornamental Sweet Gum Has Brilliant Color, Spiky Fruit

Photo: Kevin McKeon

By Kevin McKeon, Maine Master Naturalist

In 1928, Dutch elm disease was first reported in Ohio, entering from the Netherlands in beetle-infested veneer logs. Quarantine and sanitation procedures kept the disease in relative check, but then World War II happened, and priorities understandably changed. As the disease spread, the sweet gum became a popular replacement tree. The Arbor Day Foundation gave out thousands of young sweet gum saplings to the children of Springfield, Illinois, who eagerly planted them along the sidewalks in front of their homes. Its intense scarlet autumn coloration added to its proliferation as a popular ornamental planting, especially along streets, becoming the rage in the late 1970s and 80s. But the tree was destined to earn a touch of ill repute, as we’ll learn later.

The sweet gum, Liquidambar styraciflua, is a tree in the witch hazel family that produces hard, spiky, woody fruits containing numerous seeds. Its leaves have five lobes like maple trees but are pointed and star-shaped. Another distinctive feature of the tree is the odd growth of its branches, almost perpendicular from the trunk, with smaller branches and twigs jutting out in all directions, creating an eerie silhouette as leaves fall in autumn. And its unmistakable seed-laden fruits dry to a hard, spiked, cherry tomato-sized ball. Larger-beaked birds tend to leave these fruits for their smaller friends – the finches, nuthatches and chickadees, eastern goldfinches, purple finches, sparrows, mourning doves, northern bobwhites – who use their small beaks to forage for the small seeds found in the spiky fruits’ many chambers.

William Oscar Emery was a top executive at the former Goodall Mills in Sanford. When he died at the age of 64 in 1940, he instructed that a trust be established for community beautification purposes. One of these areas is the William Oscar Emery Drive, hugging Sanford’s Number One and Number Two mill ponds. It may have been during this time that Sanford’s soon-to-be-famous sweet gum tree was planted. If a 10-year-old sapling was planted during that time, our sweet gum tree could be about 80 years old, or so – far from old, as these trees can grow for 400 years, becoming 3 feet in diameter. Even so, Sanford’s sweet gum was recently anointed as the Maine state champion sweet gum tree, recognized as the largest sweet gum in the state.

So, back to the ill repute thing.

The sweet gum has disappeared from many tree nursery catalogs, appearing on many top 10 lists of the worst trees to plant in your yard. The primary cause seems to be those spiny brown seed balls that fall on the ground around it. Those trees planted by those eager Illinois school kids? Well, in 2012, Springfield launched a sweet gum eradication campaign, offering residents $250 to allow the city to remove sweet gums from their lawns, replacing them with a “more suitable variety.” Seems the trees were causing a “death-defying obstacle course for distracted walkers, runners, and everyone in between.” Although bird-lovers advocated for the nuthatches, finches, and chickadees, most folks complained that the trees weren’t being removed quickly enough. The eradication program garnered an initial 338 requests for removal, and the city’s updated tree manual lists the sweet gum as a “may not be planted” species! Along with the “littering fruit” complaints, surface roots tend to damage structures within 20 feet of the tree, earning the recommendation as an unwanted street tree.

Even so, many cultivars of L. styracifluahave won the Royal Horticultural Society’s annual Award of Garden Merit. And organizers of the 9/11 Flight 93 memorial in Shanksville, PA, donated a grove of sweet gum trees as part of a 14,300-seedling planting across 20 acres in the Field of Honor, where Flight 93 crashed.

So, while walking along Sanford’s Number One Pond, pause for a minute at the new placard standing in front of our state champion sweet gum, and reflect upon nature’s diversity.

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