WOW - A Sweetgum to the Moon!

WOW - A Sweetgum to the Moon!


The Shady Lane

In the above photo, Ann Powers, a lecturer in the UNL School of Natural Resources, plants a sweetgum "Moon Tree" on UNL East Campus this week. The tree was grown from a seed that flew around the moon three times as part of NASA’s Artemis I mission in 2022.
Happy Friday! A sweetgum tree that started from a seed that recently flew to the moon and back, was planted on UNL East Campus earlier this week (true story!). Ann Powers, a lecturer in the urban forestry program at UNL secured the tree from NASA and organized the planting. You can learn more about this fun tree here or here, including the fact that it was grown in Nebraska at Bessey Nursery and that other moon trees were planted as part of the Apollo missions in the 1970s. In honor of this lunar traveler, we'll make sweetgum the Woody of the Week. 

Woody of the Week: Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)
Grows 50-70' tall and 30-60' wide. 
Native to much of southeast US.
Suitability: Marginally hardy in Nebraska and best suited to southeast counties. 
Commonly named for the aromatic resin (gum) that exudes from its wounds. 
Scientific name Liquidambar means just that - liquid amber, sap or resin that flows from its wounds. Styraciflua also refers to fluid styrax, which is another name for the resin. 

Description (from Missouri Botanical Garden): Liquidambar styraciflua, commonly called sweetgum, is a low-maintenance deciduous shade tree that is native from Connecticut to Florida and Missouri further south to Texas, Mexico and Central America. It typically grows to 60-80’ tall with a straight trunk. Habit is pyramidal in youth, but it gradually develops an oval-rounded crown as it matures. The distinctive glossy, long-stalked, deep green leaves (4-7” across) have toothed margins. Each leaf has 5-7 pointed, star-shaped lobes that somewhat resemble maple leaves. Leaves are fragrant when bruised. Fall color at its best is a brilliant mixture of yellows, oranges, purples and reds. Branchlets may have distinctive corky ridges. Non-showy, female flowers give way to the infamous gum balls which are hard, spherical, bristly fruiting clusters to 1.5” diameter. Gum balls mature to dark brown and usually remain on the tree until late winter and can litter the ground in spring. This gumball "mess" often makes the tree undesirable for general landscape use (I rarely see significant mess with Nebraska trees). Sweetgums are best sited in moist soils and are not considered to be tolerant of extreme drought. They do have some shade tolerance.

Nebraska is on the edge of viability for sweetgum but there are many nice specimens in Lincoln and Omaha and other southeast towns. In fact Falls City and Nebraska City are home to many fantastic trees where it's been commonly planted as a street tree for decades. We see cold-weather dieback on some Nebraska trees, especially when they're young. I have a few 20year old specimens in the Waverly Arboretum and some had significant dieback the last two years which could have been both drought-related and cold related. Because of the urban heat island effect, some marginally hardy trees do better in Lincoln and Omaha than in nearby smaller towns. As with many tree species, it's important to pay attention to the seed source of a planted sweetgum in our area. Sweetgum has a wide natural range from the upper Midwest south the the Gulf Coast, so choosing a tree originating from a northern seed source, if known, would be wise. 

Related Species: There are other sweetgum species in Asia including several tropical types. Few are cultivated in North America. There are several named cultivars of the American sweetgum including the striking 'Slender Silhouette' that's a columnar form; 'Moraine' which is thought to be the most cold hardy; and 'Rotundiloba' which is a sterile cultivar with leaves that have distinctly rounded lobes. 

Fun Facts: 
  • Other common names include storax, hazel pine, redgum and alligator wood. 
  • Sweetgum wood has been widely used for a number of applications including flooring, furniture and home interiors.
  • The gum obtained from the sweetgum genus of plants has been used in the past for a variety of purposes, including chewing gum, incense, perfumes, folk medicines and flavorings.
  • Sweetgum is an ancient genus with fossil leaves of related species going back millions of years.
The star-shaped leaves of sweetgum resemble a maple, but maples have opposite leaves and buds while sweetgum's are alternate on the twig. Sweetgum can have a kaleidoscope of fall color with leaves ranging from purple, to red, to orange or yellow.  
Lincoln (left) and Falls City (right) are home to many nice sweetgum trees.
Sweetgum "gum balls" are the spiny seed balls that hang on the tree in the winter and can litter the ground in the spring. The fruits contain up to 60 capsules of tiny paired seeds. When the winged seeds are released over winter, the gum ball is marked by many noticeable holes where the seeds had been. 
Justin Evertson, Green Infrastructure Coordinator
Nebraska Forest Service & Nebraska Statewide Arboretum
402-472-6604 |

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