Chewing Over Sweet And Sour Gum Trees

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They’re called peepers. No, not the tiny frogs that peep during the first few warm days and evenings of spring, but the people who drive the country roads from mid-September through October peeping at the glorious fall colors of the deciduous forests of New England as the leaves change color before falling.Unfortunately Long Island isn’t great for peeping. It’s okay but it doesn’t hold a candle to the Catskills, Berkshires and the hills and mountains farther up into New England. Sadly (or not depending on your perspective), there are already subtle changes taking place in the higher elevations of the Catskills, but it will be weeks before we see anything happening out here. If you really want a show, you need to keep track of what’s going on upstate. There are a number of websites that track and predict the annual fall foliage show, and you can find them by simply Googling “New York Fall Foliage.” One tip that I read about early peeping is that it’s about elevation and not location. The higher you get in the mountains the earlier the color changes take place.

But if you want something really dramatic in terms of fall color changes in your backyard, there’s nothing quite like the gum trees.

The Hamptons have never been a spot where throngs of tourists rush to on fall weekends to see the foliage colors change. Out here our summer to fall palette is somewhat subdued to downright subtle. Sure, you find a small spot where a planting or natural occurrence of some trees or shrubs stands out in a brilliant red or orange, but for truly outstanding fall color shows, especially in the home landscape, you have to plan and plant.

In the area of trees, some of the most striking colors can be achieved by adding some sweet and sour gums, and no, these are not a new Asian dish. Instead, these are two of the finest trees native to the eastern United States. Both varieties are near their northern limits in the New York area, but both seem to do quite well on the East End, the sour gum being ever so slightly hardier here than the sweet.

Both trees are found in nature in moist areas along streams or adjacent to bogs, but they seem to do equally well when planted on upland soils and even in sandy spots that can be occasionally irrigated. Unquestionably, though, their finest feature is their fall color. This color can even be enhanced by choosing a planting site that is both moist and has an acid soil. The acid soil is no problem here, but the moist part may require some ingenuity.

Nyssa sylvatica is the sour gum, although that common name is also used for a related species found only farther south. It is perhaps best known as the Pepperidge or the Black Tupelo. The generic name, Nyssa, is that of a water nymph of mythology, an appropriate name to use for a tree that prefers a moist state.

It tends to be pyramidal in outline and is usually rather narrow, making it a good medium-size specimen that will not tower over your house or garage unless you give it 30 or so years. Growing at about a foot a year under the most desirable conditions (not here), undisturbed trees have reached 90 feet in height. On Long Island they seldom reach 40 feet. As a result, these trees are again better suited for landscape and ornamental purposes rather than as shade trees.

The Black Tupelo bears inconspicuous greenish flowers in the spring with the individual sexes usually found on separate trees. The flowers give way to small bluish fruit that ripens in the fall and is attractive to a wide range of wildlife. During the growing season the oval-shaped leaves are a glossy dark green. As early as late summer, they begin to acquire a reddish or purplish tinge and by early fall it will have become an intensely shiny orange-red.

The root system of this tree is such that it does not transplant well after it has reached a significant size, so try to buy young and be patient. They can be found in most nurseries, although seeds can be planted in the spot where you’d like the tree to grow. Some nurseries may even sell these trees in containers, as has been the custom in Europe for years, but again, these will (or should) be young trees.

The sweet gum, Liquidambar styraciflua, gets its generic name from the similarity in appearance of the gum that exudes from its wounded bark to amber, the fossilized rosin of conifers. Its common name has been derived from the fact that the gum can be chewed like chewing gum. It has also been a source of drugs, soaps and adhesives. Its tough wood is used in making furniture and plywood.

Historically, the sweet gum is regarded as a southern tree, but as our climate changed its range started moving northward into northern New Jersey and western Long Island. It’s thought that this northern move stopped just at about the time the Europeans began to settle in the area.

The sweet gum also prefers moist soils, but it is best planted where it will not stand in water for long. It also grows at a moderate rate, but may ultimately reach 100 feet in height in protected locations. While young, it is somewhat oval, but its crown broadens out with maturity.

The twigs of many individual trees may be covered with corky ridges, making them attractive in the winter landscape after the leaves have fallen. The leaves are star-shaped with sharp points and are similar in appearance to those of many of the maples; however, maple leaves are born opposite each other on the twigs, while those of the sweet gum are born alternately. During the growing season, they are glossy, deep green. As autumn arrives, they turn to a range of brilliant colors from yellow to scarlet and burgundy with considerable variation from tree to tree.

They, too, bear insignificant flowers in the spring. By autumn these have developed into a prickly round ball of fruit about an inch and a half in diameter. These fruits are used in making wreaths and other dried Christmas decorations. The tiny seeds born inside the fruit are a favorite food for a variety of finches.

The sweet gum is somewhat more easily transplanted than the Black Tupelo and is readily available at nurseries. However, it should always be purchased in a container or with a good-sized root ball if it is to be transplanted successfully. Its fleshy roots tend to sucker badly, especially if damaged in digging, and as the tree settles in, roots near the soil surface can make mowing a challenge … but not much grass will grow there anyway. If the fruits from this tree are an issue for you, there is a fruitless cultivar. Keep growing.

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