The sweet gum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua) is one of the most common trees found in the forests of Hilton Head Island. It is an easy tree to identify, as it has a leaf that is shaped like the palm of your hand, with 5 lobes for "fingers." The leaves are deciduous (they fall off the tree in autumn) and turn bright yellow before falling. Small flowers in head-shaped groups form seeds when pollinated. The seeds are contained in ball-shaped structures (called "gum balls") consisting of many compartments, with each compartment holding two seeds. The bark is gray to gray brown, and on older trees, there are ridges separated by deep furrows. The twigs often bear corky ridges. Sweet gums on the island can grow to around 60 feet in height.
Sweet gums grow under our tallest trees as part of the forest understory, providing shelter and food for many of our native wildlife species. The sap is sweet, thus the name, and is fed upon by one of our native woodpeckers, the yellow-bellied sapsucker. These birds drill small holes in the bark of the tree and lap up the sap. Since they may return to the same holes multiple times, they also take advantage of the insects attracted to the sap. These feeding holes don't seem to harm the tree, and many mature sweet gums bear the feeding holes of generations of sapsuckers, forming concentric rings from the base to the top of the tree. The seeds also provide food for migratory songbirds such as purple finches, goldfinches and juncos when food is otherwise scarce. It is also a food source for caterpillars of the spectacular luna moth.
Arbor Day Foundation: www.arborday.org/trees/treeguide/