Meet the Trees: Sweet Gum
Every fall, many New Yorkers make a pilgrimage up state to participate in leaf peeping. Autumn leaves are a majestic sight…but not all trees are equal in their autumn splendor.
Liquidambar styraciflua, is a beautiful native tree with unique star-shaped leaves. This tree is not only a keystone species in re-establishing spectacular fall color at Madison Square Park, it’s part of our Madison Square Park’s Canopy for the Future Plan. The quality of fall leaf color is determined by the species of tree while the intensity of the color is determined by rainfall, light levels, and temperature. Sweet gum trees are known for their outstanding yellow, red, and purple fall color. Sweet gums also produce spiky “gumball” like fruits which are an annoyance to gardeners and a delight to children.
There are two specimens of the cultivar ‘Slender Silhouette’ in Madison Square Park. This cultivar was chosen for its unique columnar shape reaching heights of 60’ while maintaining a slender canopy of merely 6’. Slender Silhouette does not produce abundant seed like the wild species, but it’s splash of color is unmatched in the autumn landscape.
Overall, sweet gum trees have a distinct pyramidal shape which make them easy to identify in natural areas. New York City is at this tree’s northern most range where many specimens can be found with corky protrusions that help protect its branches in the cold. While sweet gum trees are unique for their color, they are an important species because they can improve soil health. They have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil which is a vital component of chlorophyll, the compound that allows plants to photosynthesize.
Urban forests require steady stewardship and thought to maintain a healthy and diverse canopy. As an arboretum, Madison Square Park Conservancy has set goals to continue restoring historic tree specimens, increase fall foliage color, include species that would provide habitat to wildlife, and to diversify our tree canopy. Healthy forests include trees of all ages, so our work of planting trees like this sweet gum is never finished as we look forward to a more beautiful and healthy urban forest for generations to come.