The American sweet gum is native from Central America to the Eastern United States and is a member of the Hamamelidaceae or witch hazel family. It is also known as red gum or star-leaf gum. The tree is deciduous and may reach heights of 130 feet and spreads of 40 feet. It may live up to 400 years.
Liquidambar styraciflua has palmately (arranged like a hand with outstretched fingers) lobed leaves with 5-7 tapered lobes, which make the leaf look like a star. Leaves are green in the spring and turn orange, red, and purple in the autumn. The bark is dark gray-brown, with narrow ridges. The male and female flowers are small and yellow-green, without petals, and appear in separate, rounded heads in late spring. The fruit is small, brown, and spiny, and hangs in rounded clusters from long stalks.
The name comes from the Latin liquidus , or liquid, and the Arabic ambar or amber, while styraciflua means flowing with storax or aromatic resin. This name originates from the fact that the sweet gum secretes an aromatic fluid. When the bark is stripped, boiled, and pressed, it creates resinous oil called styrax, which can be used as a fixative in perfumes and in therapeutic preparations (Schuler 286). The styrax is like the storax that comes from Turkey 's original sweet gum tree. The Aztecs believed it to have medicinal, almost magical, purposes (Plotnick 194). The tree is commercially logged for timber. The American sweet gum is also often used as a street tree in urban areas, as its shapely, colorful leaves and disease resistance make it very popular. However, many cities have blacklisted the American sweet gum, due to its fruits. The spiny “burr balls” could possibly cause people to slip and twist an ankle (Plotnick 196). Regardless, the American sweet gum enjoys a spot as one of the more popular urban trees.