Sweetgum tree

A sweetgum tree in the 4300 block of Avenue R in Galveston is about to show residents some lovely fall colors.

Something many locals miss in the fall is the colorful leaf changes that occur in more northerly climes. “Fall” in Galveston mostly defines what leaves do after they turn brown, in preparation for winter.

Two local trees do more than that. One to avoid is the invasive Chinese Tallow (Triadica sebifera). This Asian transplant outcompetes native trees and is considered an ecological threat. Its fruit and leaves are toxic to humans and cattle.

The American sweetgum (Liquidambar Styraciflua) is a lovely U.S. native plant that provides fall colors. The name derives from the aromatic gum that oozes from wounds. The tree’s glossy, fragrant, star-shaped leaves can turn red, purple, yellow or orange in the fall and early winter. It’s a large tree that can reach 40 to 60 feet at maturity, likely less here. Young trees have a narrow pyramidal form that becomes more oval with maturity.

This tree has numerous positive attributes. It requires little pruning, has high-heat tolerance and provides excellent shade. The roots fix nitrogen into the soil for the use of other plants.

It tolerates a variety of well-drained soils and enjoys moderate drought and salt tolerance. It does requires adequate space, as well as full sun to partial shade to flourish. Sweetgums suffer the usual insect pests: webworms, caterpillars, borers and scale.

Sweetgum has multiple uses for humans and wildlife as well. Its typical straight form and strong wood make it a good species for lumber, furniture, cabinetwork, veneers and other purposes. The resinous gum has been used for creating chewing gum, incense, perfumes, folk medicines and flavorings.

Wildlife enjoy it as a source of food and habitat. Songbirds eat the seeds during the winter and seek insects inside the fruits. It hosts several pollinator species, and small mammals consume the bark.

Speaking of the fruit, some consider this a litter problem. Inconspicuous flowers are followed by spiny seed balls that persist into winter. These “gumballs” are beloved by fans of dried arrangements but not by people who like to walk barefoot. The fruit may be a nuisance but is usually more noticeable on hard surfaces, such as roads, patios and sidewalks, where people could slip and fall on.

When planning to add a sweetgum to the landscape, it’s important to consider its mature size. It does require a large space to thrive and given ample room makes a fine street and shade tree. Plant trees away from curbs because of the large, aggressive roots. Much of the root system is shallow, and surface roots can be a problem in lawns or in the narrow space between sidewalk and curb

If you have a large space to fill, an American sweetgum will provide cooling shade in spring and summer and colorful interest in fall. Trees are available in the nursery trade. There’s a healthy young tree in the 4300 block of Avenue R that should color up soon, so drive by and take a look.

Tree stories is an ongoing series of articles about outstanding island trees, tree care, and tree issues. Margaret Canavan is a Galveston resident, a Galveston County Master Gardener, and a member of the Galveston Island Tree Conservancy Board.

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(1) comment

Bailey Jones

Oh my - my least favorite tree. We used to have one, and the sweetgum balls were just the right size to jam between the end of my lawnmower blade and the mower body. That tree is gone now - but the roots still snake across the yard.

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