When visiting my wife’s family in southern Indiana this weekend, I noticed this tall, straight sweetgum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua, Hamamelidaceae) growing in her grandma’s yard. I’ve never seen one of these here in Michigan, and with good reason. The native range of this tree is restricted to lower elevations in the southeastern United States and parts of Central America.
Sweetgum foliage has a pretty distinct appearance, with the pointed five-lobed leaves looking somewhat like stars. They’re glossy green in the spring and summer, and in the autumn they exhibit some exceptional fall color.
These trees grow seeds within fruit known as “gumballs.” Hard, brown, and spiky when ripe, they can litter the ground in large numbers in the fall and winter. Stepping on them barefoot can be painful. Ask me how I know.
Sweetgums flower in the early spring, and by now in mid-spring they’re already growing new gumballs. In the photo above you can see the softer, green gumballs growing amid the foliage, preparing to disperse the next generation of seeds.