Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Variegata’ Photo by Katherine Wagner-Reiss

Liquidambar formosana Photo by Katherine Wagner-Reiss


Article and photos contributed by Katherine Wagner-Reiss

Plant names can be just as interesting as the plants themselves, in my opinion! One of my favorite tree names is Liquidambar styraciflua , commonly called the American sweetgum tree.The genus Liquidambar and the species Liquidambar styraciflua were both officially named by Linnaeus , the father of modern taxonomy.

You don’t have to be a Latin scholar to interpret the species name as “liquid-amber storax- flowing.” Storax means gum resin, and is a word derived from the Greek word styrax .

The resin can be collected and used as chewing gum; I have read that it is not truly sweet; it is simply sweeter than the resin of Nyssa sylvatica , the native sour gum tree, which often grows in the same range.

The Plant Catalogue of the Morris Arboretum lists eight Liquidambar styraciflua. Two of these are cultivars: ‘Festival,’ named for the particularly festive fall leaf colors in tones of gold, orange, pinks and reds and ‘Variegata’, featuring green and yellow variegated leaves all summer turning to variegated pink and scarlet in the fall.

In addition to the native American sweetgum, the Arboretum also boasts a Liquidambar formosana (Formosa was the old name for Taiwan), and a Chinese Liquidambar acalycina (acalycina means without a calyx). The native L. styraciflua has star-shaped leaves with 5-7 lobes, while the non- native L. formosana and L. acalycina have only 3 lobes. Sweetgums vie with the maples for best fall color in the Northeastern US; yellow, orange, red, and purple leaves can decorate the same tree. Enjoy them all!


Katherine has her Certificate in Botany from the New York Botanical Garden and is a botanical tour guide and free-lance writer.