Stately Liquidambars

    • Ornamental kale and cabbage make a dramatic planting in flower beds over the winter.
    • Plant pansies, snapdragons, stock, calendulas and primroses now to replace summer annuals.
    • Tulips can paint the spring garden with almost any color you choose. Plant them now to enjoy their bright flowers next April.
    • Garlic sets can be planted now for an easy crop that you can harvest next spring. Choose from hard-neck, soft-neck or Elephant garlic varieties now available.
    • Plant cover crops in the garden where summer plants have finished. Fava beans and crimson clover will grow through the winter and improve your soil for spring planting.

Stately Liquidambars

If you’ve always wanted to see the fall colors in New England, do the next best thing and plant your own deciduous tree for fall color. Now is the ideal time to shop for such trees — while their leaves are showing their brilliant fall color. Few trees can equal the foliage of the liquidambar, or sweet gum tree. From yellow and orange to burgundy and red, these trees have it all. The sweet gum is one of the most reliable trees for autumn color in our area.

The tree is named for the reddish resin that exudes from the bark known as storax. The common name ‘sweet gum’ comes from this sweet balsamic sap which, when exposed, hardens into a fragrant gum.

Fall color is not the only attractive feature of a liquidambar. Their bright green, maple-like leaves are attractive in spring and summer. In the winter, their prickly, round fruits hang down from the bare branches like little ornaments. They are a favorite for flower arranging.

Liquidambars have a narrow, upright habit of growth. They can reach 40 or 60 feet in height with a spread of 20 to 25 feet. Since they branch low to the ground, they make excellent screens. They can be planted 10 to 15 feet apart to make a tall untrimmed screen.

When planted on the west side of the house, they will offer filtered shade from the hot afternoon sun. When they are in brilliant fall color, this back lighting makes them especially handsome.

Liquidambars are easily trained as lawn, street or patio trees. During the first two or three years, leave on the lowest branches. If you want to be able to walk under the tree, prune out its lower branches when the tree begins to form a sturdy trunk. Do not cut the central leader to create a rounded head. The tree will just send up another leader to take its place, and this may spoil the tree’s appearance.

When sweet gum trees are grown from seed, they may vary in size and in fall color. If you buy them after the leaves have turned color, you can choose the one that you like best.

Several varieties have been selected for their fall color and these are reproduced by grafting. These cultivars include ‘Palo Alto’ which turns a fiery scarlet in the fall; ‘Burgundy’ which has purplish leaves that hold late into winter; and ‘Festival’ which has pink, orange and yellow leaves on the same tree.

Liquidambars need full sun for best fall color, but they will take some shade. They make nice street trees, but do not plant them under power lines since they grow so tall. And make sure to plant them well away from sidewalks and driveways as their roots will crack nearby pavement.

For best appearance, water them once a month in heavy soils, and twice a month in sandy soils through the summer. They do well in damp locations.

The sweet gum is an outstanding deciduous tree that looks at home both in woodland settings and in residential gardens.

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