Friday, January 13, 2012

The Amber Flame Tree

It has now been a year since my journey to Costa Rica as part of a semester study abroad experience focusing on Biology and Spanish. I returned last May, and one of the things I was most looking forward to was fall: I needed to see some explosive leaf colors. Don't get me wrong, the plants I saw in Costa Rica were beautiful and vibrant green, but it's difficult to compare that with the leaf colors you can see during an Ohio autumn.

As fall came and went, I saw some wonderful colors, and gradually came to the realization that one of my favorite trees is the American sweet gum, Liquidambar styraciflua. Even its scientific name is beautiful and rolls right off your tongue, it's fantastic.

The leaves of the tree are palmate to be technical, but I would rather describe them as five-pointed stars.


The colors of these leaves are astounding and range from green to purple, with yellows, reds, and oranges in between.The maples have nothing on this tree!

Leaves of a young tree.



Notice the variability in leaf color and shape.

Not limited to just the leaves, the fruit of the tree is interesting as well. It's a spiky capsule that every kid on the playground in my elementary school days knew about: we called them monkey balls and threw them at each other.

Sometimes they could hurt. Then we would get in trouble.

The dried fruit. If you look closely, you can see a spider web.

The fruit is composed of many capsules (according to Wikipedia, 40-60), which contain the seeds. Many of the seeds from the fruit end up being aborted, and fall out of the fruit as chaff. The seeds that develop fully and are released, however, are small and look like small wings. I have a few fruits in the lab, I'll get a picture and update this entry later with pictures of the seeds and chaff. 

I recently learned that the young bark of the sweet gum has a warty appearance, something I had never seen before: until I was shown a young tree at the Kroger Wetlands during a flowering plants class.


The sweet gum is easy to identify during the winter (woohoo!): all you have to do is look for the tree with spiky fruits hanging off all its branches: there will be many. Some people don't like the tree because of all the fruits it produces, which can make a lawn lumpy and not much fun to walk across, but that's a small price to pay for a tree as beautiful as this. 

Sadly, I've yet to nab a picture of the flowers, but that gives me a goal for the coming spring!

Further Reading:

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