American sweetgums are deciduous trees prized for their star-shaped leaves that turn a brilliant mix of fall colors. Sweetgums are native to the southeastern United States. It is classified according to its Latin name Liquidambar styraciflua and it belongs to the Altingiaceae family. From many perspectives, the American sweetgum is a good tree for the urban landscape. It grows fast in acidic loamy soil and has few insect or disease issues. American sweetgum trees are best grown in USDA plant hardiness zones 5 through 9. However, the one major flaw of this tree species is that it produces large amounts of fruit or seedpods. These spiky seedpods litter lawns which ultimately makes the tree much less desirable for any landscaping.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have a fruitless sweetgum tree, that is to have everything except the spiky mess. Sometimes a plant may grow that differs substantially than others in a population. We call this genetic mutation a “sport” and if that mutation happens to be desirable then we can make many exact copies of it through propagation techniques. So, Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Rotundiloba,’ is a sterile, non-fruiting cultivar of the American sweetgum that does not produce the famous spiky seed pods. A cultivar is a plant selected from the wild or intentionally bred that differs from the typical member of the species it was selected from or bred. If you are interested in planting a fruitless sweetgum tree then this article is for you.
A problem with growing ‘Rotundiloba’ has been its lack of symmetry. Instead of having the cookie-cutter appearance, the fruitless sweet gum has a more free form habit, especially with lateral branches. In formal plantings, let’s say like at mall parking lots, where exact size duplicates are needed, this has caused some disappointment.
As always, a tree this rare is not likely to be found at a large discount nursery, instead, it is more likely found in select plant nurseries or from mail-order tree nurseries. Below is a list of other cultivars that are considered nearly fruitless and may be considered as options to the sterile ‘Rotundiloba’.
|Liquidambar syraciflua Cultivars||Fruit Production|
|‘Slender Silhouette’||Nearly Fruitless|
Bottom Line: If you are planting a sweetgum tree then most likely you interested in it as a specimen tree. The main drawback of using a native tree is the large amounts of fruit or seedpods that it produces and the extra cleanup work that it entails. The alternative is the sterile ‘Rotundiloba’ cultivar. Just be prepared for some additional pruning early in the tree’s development and losses due to cold temperatures in Northern latitudes.
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