An attractive, large shade tree, the gumball tree is more widely known as the sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua). Its woody, spiny, rounded fruits are called "gumballs" and cover the ground in fall and winter once they drop from the branches. Grow a gumball tree in abundant sunshine and in a moist, fertile soil that isn't alkaline. It is best grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 5 through 9.
Gumball tree hails from a large expanse of the Southeastern United States. It naturally grows from the panhandle of Connecticut southward to the coastal plain and Central Florida and then west into the Ohio River Valley and Eastern Texas. It doesn't grow naturally in the Appalachian Mountains. Isolated pockets of the tree also occur in the highlands of Mexico and Central America.
This tree is a member of the Hamamelidaceae, making it closely related to witchhazels (Hamamelis spp.), fringe flowers (Loropetalum spp.), winterhazels (Corylopsis spp.) and the Persian ironwood (Parrotia persica). Within the genus Liquidambar, there are only three other species of trees, all native to parts of Asia.
Gumball trees have very straight trunks and look pyramid-like in their canopies when young. As they age, the canopy becomes more rounded or oblong. It grows 60 to 75 feet tall and 40 to 50 feet wide.
Leaves of the gumball tree are star-like with five or seven pointed lobes. Crush the leaves and they emit a fragrance. In autumn the foliage attains mottled, changing hues of red, orange, yellow and purple. The tiny flowers are not readily seen in early to mid-spring, but are greenish yellow with a fringe of red. Female blossoms develop into rounded seed capsules--the "gumballs"--which turn orange-brown to dark brown and linger on the branches and eventually fall to the ground where they persist for well over six months before softening and decomposing.
Today gumball trees are grown as tall shade trees in gardens although many ornamental cultivars exist that have more ornate foliage or do not produce the spiny seed gumballs. Cut trees are used as lumber, veneer, plywood, railroad ties, fuel and pulpwood.