This might be the most spectacular and most reliable of autumn foliage available locally. Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua, begins to develop a brilliant blend of yellow, orange and red in response to the earliest mild chill of autumn. It defoliates slowly to retain much of its colorful foliage through the earliest rain and wind of winter, and perhaps even later.
Sweetgum leaves are palmate, and about four inches wide, with five pointed lobes. One very rare cultivar has hierarchically lobed leaves, with lobes on lobes. Another has blunt lobes. Some cultivars as well as individual trees favor particular foliar colors for autumn. ‘Burgundy’ exhibits more dark red color than typical, and retains foliage later than typical.
Mature trees can grow fifty feet tall, but are not very broad. They can get taller and lankier to compete with other tall trees. Their upright form conforms to grove arrangement within large landscapes and parks. Unfortunately, their aggressive roots can displace concrete. Their branches can be structurally deficient. Their spiky and hard fruit can be obnoxious.