Identifying Sweetgum Trees

Sweetgum is sometimes called redgum, probably because of the red color of the older heartwood and its red fall leaves. Sweetgum grows from Connecticut southward throughout the East to central Florida and eastern Texas and is easy to identify in both summers and in winter.

Introduction to the Sweetgum

sweetgum tree fruit and seeds

Roger Culos/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Look for the star-shaped leaf as foliage grows in the spring and look for the dried seed balls under the tree. The trunk is normally straight and does not divide into double or multiple leaders and side branches are small in diameter on young trees, creating a pyramidal form. The bark becomes deeply ridged at about 25-years-old. Sweetgum makes a nice conical park, campus or residential shade tree for large properties when it is young, developing a more oval or rounded canopy as it grows older, as several branches become dominant and grow in diameter.

Description and Identification of Sweetgum

sweetgum tree leaves

JLPC/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Common Names: sweetgum, redgum, star-leaved gum, alligator-wood, and gumtree

Habitat: Sweetgum grows in moist soils of valleys and lower sloped areas. This tree may also be found in mixed woodlands. Sweetgum is a pioneer species, often found after an area has been logged or clearcut and one of the most common tree species in the eastern United States.

Description: The star-like leaf has 5 or 7 lobes or points and turns from green in summer to yellow or purple in autumn. This leaf is borne on corky-winged limbs and the bark is gray-brown, deeply furrowed with narrow ridges. The fruit is a conspicuous spiked ball that hangs in clusters.

The Natural Range of Sweetgum

Natural distribution map for the sweetgum tree

Elbert L. Little, Jr./U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service/Wikimedia Commons

Sweetgum grows from Connecticut southward throughout the East to central Florida and eastern Texas. It is found as far west as Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma and north to southern Illinois. It also grows in scattered locations in northwestern and central Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

The Silviculture and Management of Sweetgum

sweetgum tree flower

Shane Vaughn/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

"Sweetgum is adaptable to a variety of conditions, preferring deep, moist, acidic soil and full sun. it grows rapidly when given such a situation but more slowly on dry sites or in less ideal soil. It is a little tricky to transplant because of its coarse root system, but root-pruned or container-grown trees from nurseries establish readily. The tiny seeds germinate freely if stratified and surface-sown in spring..."

  • From Native Trees for North American Landscapes - Sternberg/Wilson

"Be careful when locating Sweetgum as a street tree since its large, aggressive roots may lift curbs and sidewalks. Plant trees 8 to 10 feet or more from curbs. Some communities have large numbers of Sweetgum planted as street trees. Much of the root system is shallow (particularly in its native, moist habitat), but there are deep vertical roots directly beneath the trunk in well-drained and in some other soils. The fruit may be a litter nuisance to some in the fall, but this is usually only noticeable on hard surfaces, such as roads, patios, and sidewalks, where people could slip and fall on the fruit..."

Insects and Diseases of Sweetgum

sweetgum trees in autumn

Luis Fernández García/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.5 es

Pest information courtesy of Introduction to Sweetgum, USFS Fact Sheet ST358:

"Although it grows at a moderate pace, Sweetgum is rarely attacked by pests, and tolerates wet soils, but chlorosis is often seen in alkaline soils. Trees grow well in deep soil, poorly in shallow, droughty soil.
Sweetgum is difficult to transplant and should be planted from containers or transplanted in the spring when young since it develops deep roots on well-drained soil. It is native to bottomlands and moist soils and tolerates only some (if any) drought. Existing trees often dieback near the top of the crown, apparently due to extreme sensitivity to construction injury to the root system, or drought injury. The tree leafs out early in the spring and is sometimes damaged by frost..."

Roundleaf Sweetgum var. Rotundiloba - The "Fruitless" Sweetgum

roundleaf sweetgum tree

Ted Hensley

Roundleaf sweetgum has star-shaped leaves with rounded tips and can turn deep purple to yellow in the fall. Rotundiloba does well in USDA hardiness zones 6 through 10 so it can be planted throughout most of the Eastern states, the Western coastal states but has a problem in upper Midwestern states.

Rotundiloba branches are covered with characteristic sweetgum corky projections. This sweetgum makes a nice park, campus, or residential shade tree for large properties. ‘Rotundiloba’ is slowly but steadily being recognized as a superior tree to the species, especially for street tree use or near other paved surfaces, since it develops fewer typical burr-like sweetgum fruit.