I wish that all trees would hold onto their autumn tinted leaves as long as the Sweet Gum. Liquidambar styraciflua, as it is more correctly known, will give up to three months of autumn colour, from the earliest hints of reddening leaves in August to the last leaves falling in mid November – in between, this slow growing specimen tree, from across the Northern Hemisphere, gives a display of red and yellow autumn colour that surpasses almost every other tree in cultivation.
Although it is not a tree for the small garden, its ultimate height of around 20 metres (65’) in cultivation will take upwards of 30 years to achieve and its upright, pyramidal shape prevents it from drowning out other plants in the garden. The foliage is reminiscent of maples with five to seven lobes on each leaf – these are borne on longer than normal leaf stalks, giving the tree a feeling of movement in summer as the leaves flutter, even in a gentle breeze. As the tree ages, the stems develop corky lines of bark that add a strange, rough texture to the trunk and branches – always a source of fascination for anyone who gets close to the tree.
There are one or two variations to search out, including ‘Burgundy’ with its rich deep red autumn colour, ‘Festival’ with a more erect habit than the type and autumn tints of pink, peach and yellow, ‘Worplesdon’ that has deeply lobed leaves that turn purple as the summer progresses and then finally orange-yellow, and ‘Variegata’ with mottled yellow leaves.
If you decide to plant one in your garden, try to give it the space it deserves, in open sunshine and choose a well grown containerised specimen to help ensure good establishment. It has a preference for acid to neutral soils that are well-drained so it is best to check your soil conditions before buying as good specimens will not be cheap.