Savory Sweetgum

Liquidambar Variegata's medley of colors in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Liquidambar Variegata’s medley of foliage colors (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Once upon a time there was a girl that absolutely adored all things multicolored.  She loved calico cats and tie dye shirts, rainbows and zebra prints.  So, it was a natural transition for this girl to grow into a gardener with the same relish for multicolored foliage.  Luckily, she was born in a century brimming with innovative plant introductions, such as echinacea in unheard of shades like fluorescent orange and eye-popping pink, and dwarf lilacs that were not only intensely fragrant, but bloomed from spring to fall.  But what intrigued this damsel most of all were the many creations complemented with variegated foliage.  She simply could not get enough.  A few years ago, she stumbled upon a variegated sweetgum, and the rest as they say is history . . .

Liquidambar's Autumn foliage in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Liquidambar’s Autumn foliage

Named for the fragrant, amber liquid which runs from the bark when sliced, Liquidambar styraciflua has become a popular and much loved addition to many properties.  Though the balsam scented golden resin has long been used for soaps and incense, some enjoy its flavor in natural chewing gum and tobacco as well.  However, I suspect the reason this tree has gained such popularity of late isn’t because of its sap, but rather the glorious fall display of bright red and fiery orange.  Liquidambar styraciflua, also known as sweetgum, is a fast growing U. S. native capable of reaching over 60 feet tall in sunny locations in zones (5?)6-9.  After the colorful leaves drop, spiny seed orbs persist on the tree adding both ornamental value and food for overwintering birds such as cardinals, mourning doves and blue jays.  But there’s one thing papa sweetgum doesn’t have, and that’s the gorgeous multicolored foliage that adorns Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Variegata’ from spring through fall.

Variegated Sweetgum's splashes of color in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Variegated Sweetgum’s splashes of color (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Where parent liquidambar quietly stands overlooking the grounds, blending nicely with all the other green plantings, ‘Variegata’ literally ignites the landscape, providing a brilliant contrast to the surrounding gardens.  Each individual glossy bluish-green, star shaped leaf looks as if an artist took a brush to it, adding creamy yellow stripes and occasionally splashes of color throughout.  While incredibly curious to look at up close, the overall impact from a distance is equally stunning.

Sweetgum in the landscape in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Sweetgum’s golden foliage brightens the landscape (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Like the species, Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Variegata’ is a deciduous tree that will tolerate dry conditions once established, but prefers a moist, well drained soil in full sun to part shade. The branching on both appears somewhat horizontal in nature, evolving to a pyramidal form.  Unlike its father, Variegata will only grow to approximately 30 feet tall, which makes this a better option for the smaller property.  And, although the fall display may not be as stellar, the leaves do turn a dusky mauve which is quite attractive at season’s end.

Variegated Liquidambar creates a focal point in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Variegated Liquidambar creates a vibrant focal point (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

So, the choice is yours, dear readers, whether selecting Liquidambar styraciflua or its variegated sibling.  Both are noteworthy additions to the landscape, you just need to decide if you want color from April through October, or the fireworks of foliage in autumn.  Or . . . perhaps you can plant one of each?


  1. Patty Wahlers says

    I love the colors-when can you plant them?

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