Liquidambar styraciflua : American sweet gum

Deciduous tree with yellow to red leaves in fall

One of few trees to lend autumn color to the Southern California landscape, liquidambar also is prized for its neat, upright silhouette and dense, deeply lobed, maple-like greenery. Opinion is divided on the Sputnik-shaped seed pods that appear in winter: Some people use them in wreath arrangements; others curse them as a nuisance that must be raked. Kids enjoy throwing them at anything that moves.

Although some gardening books warn that liquidambar must have a neutral, or definitely non-alkaline, soil and a monthly watering in the summer, it seems to thrive in spite of such worries--and often in the absence of such care. It won't do well in the desert, high or low, but it will grow and prosper in every other zone, rising to about 60 feet at maturity (although it gets much taller in its native Eastern United States).

Liquidambars look particularly fine when grouped as a screen or small grove, their foliage so thick we rarely can see the branches until the leaves fall. They make good street trees too, because their roots won't buckle sidewalks (though they will disrupt a lawn).

Although they do not form a canopy of shade, spreading no more than 20 feet, and in spite of the pods that can annoy strollers, liquidambars make an elegant line of defense against undistinguished urban architecture.

If you want to plant a liquidambar for fall color, make sure the tree you buy is a named variety with a guaranteed color, or else buy the tree in the winter when its leaves are already colored.

"Burgundy's" leaves turn a dark purple-red and last long into winter; "Festival" offers a veritable rainbow of orange, yellow, red, pink and peach-colored leaves, all at the same time, while the most popular variety, "Palo Alto," turns bright red.

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