Vascular Plants of North Carolina
Account for Sweetgum - Liquidambar styraciflua   L.
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Section 6 » Order Hamamelidales » Family Altingiaceae
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DistributionThroughout the Coastal Plain and Piedmont. In the Mountains found only in the lower elevations, but nearly absent from the northern counties. Surprisingly absent in a few counties in the northwestern Piedmont. Some iNaturaist photos from Mountain counties lacking specimens are not included here, as they could be from plantings.

This species does not have as wide a distribution as might be expected, considering its range in the state. It ranges north mainly to MA, southern NY, and MO; south to the Gulf Coast states.
AbundanceAbundant in the Coastal Plain and Piedmont (except scarce in the northwestern corner of the Piedmont). Can be common in the low Mountains, but mainly not common in the province on the whole, and seemingly absent in the northern Mountains. In fact, it is so ubiquitous downstate that it is often considered a “pest” species that is to be contained in some natural areas that require fire to keep woody species such as Sweetgum from shading out rare species.
HabitatThis species has a very wide habitat selection, from full sun to forested areas. It is one of the first pioneer woody species in old fields. It grows best in rich to moist soil of bottomland forests, or some brownwater swamps and levees; but it is widespread in various mesic and somewhat dry ones, as well. Found in most types of mesic forests, as well as pine-hardwood forests.
PhenologyBlooms in April and May, and fruits in August and September. The fruits often hang on the trees through the winter.
IdentificationThis tall deciduous tree, often growing well over 100 feet tall, simply is unmistakable at all seasons, at least if the odd woody fruit “balls” are visible in the colder months. In the growing season, it has alternate leaves that are star-shaped – five strong and distinct palmate and serrate lobes; leaves average about 4 inches long. The flowers are in “catkins” that do not attract much attention. By late fall, the fruit appears, being unique -– a many parted capsule with dozens of woody spurs, arranged in a ball shape. Saplings or smaller trees, not yet to fruiting age, might be tricky to identify in winter by inexperienced people. It does have occasional winged woody stems; otherwise, you need to look at keys to identifying winter twigs. Many large Sweetgum trees have the lowest part of the trunk’s bark gnawed away by Beavers; they prefer Sweetgum bark to that of other trees.
Taxonomic CommentsWeakley (2020) maps Chinese Sweetgum (L. formosana from the NC Piedmont. SERNEC specimens from Wake and Pender counties are both from cultivated trees.

Other Common Name(s)Red-gum, American Sweetgum, Sweet-gum. It is often written as Sweet Gum – two words – but this is taxonomically incorrect and should be avoided, as it is not a gum (genus Nyssa).
State RankS5
Global RankG5
State Status
US Status
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B.A. SorrieSame data. Unusual leaf shape like maple. MoorePhoto_natural
B.A. SorrieWhispering Pines, disturbed woods, Sept 2014. MoorePhoto_natural
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