Liquidambar Styraciflua, in Other Words: the Sweet Gum Tree

Oddly enough, I never really noticed them until the autumn of last year and now I suddenly see them everywhere: the sweet gum tree or liquidambar styraciflua. Time for a photographic tribute to the mother of all autumn trees.

A sweet gum tree(Liquidambar styraciflua) in the fall in a curve of a bicycle path in the Southern Border Park in Rotterdam
They’re everywhere


The amber tree originates from the southeast of the United States, roughly from the New York – Houston – Orlando triangle. In addition styraciflua grows in higher altitudes in Central America.

Fairytale image of the leaves and fruits of a sweet gum tree (liquidambar styraciflua) in autumn
Star-shaped leaves

Chewing gum tree

The English language has a lot of names for the liquidambar styraciflua. Quoting Wikipedia: American sweetgum or simply sweet gum tree, American storax, hazel pine, bilted, redgum, satin-walnut, star-leaved gum and alligatorwood.

Google Translate incorrectly translates sweet gum tree into German as süßer Kaugummibaum which in turn translates as sweet chewing gum tree. Which reminds me of a song from my childhood about “my uncle’s chewing gum ball tree”. Perhaps the sweet gum tree, with its multi-colored leaves, has been the inspiration for that song.

The foliage of two rows of sweet gum trees (liquidambar styraciflua) in autumn, on both sides of a street in Kralingen, Rotterdam, with the sky as a heart-shaped opening
Along a street in Kralingen, Rotterdam

Gardens, parks and avenues

In the Netherlands one sees the sweet gum tree mainly in gardens and parks. Unfortunately, avenues and streets planted with rows of styracifluas are rare. But there are exceptions, such as the Rozenburglaan in the Rotterdam neighbourhood of Kralingen (photo above). And on this square in Rotterdam-West there are even three rows of them!

Three rows of sweet gum trees (liquidambar styraciflua) in autumn, on a square in Rotterdam-West
On a square in Rotterdam-West


For most of the year, the sweetgum is a rather inconspicuous tree, but in the autumn it explodes in a psychedelic extravaganza in which almost every color seems possible: green, yellow, orange, red and even purple.

Almost abstract and multicolored image of the leaves of a sweet gum tree (liquidambar styraciflua) in autumn
Psychedelic extravaganza


In addition to the five-pointed leaves, the sweet gum is easily recognized by the green spiky fruit balls.

Closeup of the spiky green fruit balls of a sweet gum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua) in autumn
Spiky fruits


A liquidambar styraciflua can reach a height of 45 meters, but here in the Netherlands I rarely see them higher than ten metres or so. Maybe that’s because most of them are in fact still saplings. But they can live for four hundred years, so that’s a promise for the future.

The largest sweet gum tree I know can be found in The Park in Rotterdam. It is not as high as the Euromast tower behind it; that is a case of perspective distortion. But it must be at least twenty metres high.

Autumn image of The Park in Rotterdam with trees in various colors as well as the Euromast tower
The Park in Rotterdam

Sweet gum

The official name Liquidambar Styraciflua was coined in 1753 by the legendary botanist Linnaeus. But what does the name mean? It appears to be connected with the pleasant smelling gum produced by the leaves, which can also be tapped from the bark. Liquidus is Latin for liquid, ambar is Arabic for gum, styrax is the resin of this specific family of trees. The English name sweet gum tree also refers to that sweet resin, which was traditionally appreciated by the native Americans.

In other words: the naming has nothing to do with the physical beauty of the tree, but with its inner qualities. However I must confess it’s that outer beauty that pleases me most.

Stunning colors in the foliage of a number of sweet gum trees (liquidambar styraciflua) in autumn
Autumn splendour

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