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April 2008
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Growing the Sweet Gum tree

The sweet gum is a large, native, aromatic tree becoming 60 to 120 feet in height, with a trunk from 2 to 4 feet in diameter. In the open it develops a very symmetric pyramidal crown, with spreading and almost horizontal branches persisting rather low on the tapering, continuous trunk. When growing in the forests, the trunks are straight and clean, with a rather small lofty crown. It has an upright pyramidal growth habit in its youth and then becomes spreading, irregular and open as it ages.
American sweetgum trees are deciduous trees, indigenous to the southeastern U.S. American sweetgum trees bear leaves shaped like stars. The leaves provide excellent fall foliage color: in some cases, at the peak of the fall foliage season, some leaves may be red, others purple, others yellow, others orange — all on the same sweetgum tree! American sweetgum trees stand up well to urban pollution and are fast-growing trees. It is in flower in May, and the seeds ripen from October to November.
American Sweetgum Trees are best grown in planting zones 5-9. The trees prefer full sun. The plant prefers light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils and requires well-drained soil. The plant prefers acid and neutral soils. It cannot grow in the shade. It requires moist soil. Young plants are susceptible to damage from late frosts.

Growing a tree from a gumball (capsule):

Gumballs turn brown with age. As they turn color on the tree, the heads pop open to disperse the seed. The gumballs can be taken from the tree safely for a few weeks before they turn color without hurting the seed. If the gumballs you collected are green, you can continue to let them dry and pop open, or try to gently pry them open yourself to access the seeds. Inside each prickly point are 1 or 2 winged seeds (usually dispersed by the wind). The entire gumball can contain as many as 50 seeds in a good year, and as few as 5 in a bad year (it runs in 3-year cycles). The amount of seeds found in the gumballs tends to correlate with how viable they are. The more seeds the ball has, the more likely it is that those seeds are of good quality.
Place the capsules on a sheet of paper in a warm place. As they open, shake the seeds out and sow them in a mixture of 1/3 of horticultural sand (coarse, washed river sand) 1/3 of a good compost and 1/3 of peat moss. Mix well and place it in a 8 inch deep tray. Spread the seeds evenly and not to crowded. Cover them with a 1/6 of an inch of the same mix and place it in a cold frame. Seeds could take up to two years to germinate. As soon as the seedlings reach around 4 inches high they should be transplanted to a pot where they should be kept until ready to be planted. Young plants should be kept in a cold frame for their first winter. As you plant them in their final place, try not to disturb the roots as you remove them from the pots. Sweet gum doesn’t like to be transplanted.

Problem: The spiny fruit pods are fairly objectionable, especially on lawns and sidewalks. The limbs drop fairly easily. This tree has a tendency to spread quickly on fertile moist sites and could become a pest if not controlled.

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