Liquidambar: plant this tree

by James Alexander-Sinclair

There are many reasons you should grow Liquidambar styraciflua (sorry if I'm sounding a bit bossy)...

I know that you're beset by articles about autumn leaves at this time of year (heaven knows, I'm responsible for more than my fair share), and the recent cold snap has accelerated the end of what the Americans call "leaf peeping". However, it's also the beginning of the tree planting season and I want to state the case for one particular tree. A tree that, if you want your autumns to always be as sparkly as an Maharanee's tiara is indispensable. Ladies and Gentlemen (drum roll, please)...I give you…the sweet gum tree alias... Liquidambar styraciflua (gasps and prolonged applause).

If left to its own devices it will grow to about 25m which, I hear you cry, is far too big for the average garden. True, but it is also a tree that will respond well to pruning. Some of you might remember the Fortnum and Mason garden designed by Robert Myers at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2007. The building at the back of the garden was covered with trained liquidambars and very effective it was.

There are many reasons you should grow this tree (sorry if I'm sounding a bit bossy): its leaves are finely shaped (like a sort of muscular maple leaf); its bark is pale and slightly corky; it produces rather charming fruits called gumballs but, more than anything, its autumn colour is staggeringly good.

There are quite a few varieties of Liquidambar available but L. styraciflua 'Worplesdon' is, I think, probably the best. The leaves turn deep red-cabbage-purple first before exploding into flashes of orangey-yellow. For a smaller (only about 10m) and more slow-growing tree, try L. styraciflua 'Moonbeam'. It has creamy yellow young leaves that turn green as the summer progresses before transforming into fine colour.

Best to ignore the variegated varieties as they are, I think, all hideous mutations. Some things are best left in their simplest forms - this magnificent tree is undoubtedly one of them.

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Gardeners' World Web User 05/11/2008 at 20:33

Are they any good for wildlife?

Gardeners' World Web User 05/11/2008 at 23:50

The Americans love this tree as long as it isn't in their yards, as the fruit falls abundantly and is painful to walk on. Just a thought, perhaps the fruitless variety 'Rotundiloba' would be better?

Gardeners' World Web User 07/11/2008 at 13:39

James, I have a Liquidamber that is about 30 feet tall, looking exquisite at the moment in my garden. It is pretty heavy clay soil in that area of the garden, the soil has never been improved. You did my garden years ago in Dulwich. I admire all your work and blogs, by the way.

Gardeners' World Web User 07/11/2008 at 14:38

I have just planted a superb specimen of Liquidamber styraciflua 'Worpleston' in my Garden in West Sussex. The soil type is alkaline and clay, although it is also quite deep and fertile. I have to agree that this is one of the finest trees for Autumn colour and form and should be planted more often as it is actually suprisingly tolerant in all but shallow chalk soils

Gardeners' World Web User 07/11/2008 at 22:34

I planted a liquidamber in my Aberdeenshire coastal garden earlier this year it is struggling a bit although still alive does anyone else have experience of similar conditions?

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