For fall color, sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) is hard to beat. Its glossy green star-shaped leaves turn fiery shades of red, orange, yellow, and purple in the fall. This large tough tree is capable of growing 60 to 100 feet high with a spread of 30 to 70 feet, which makes it well-suited for parks, campuses, or residential areas.
Have I told you that it has a naturally strong branch architecture? Did you know that in the animated adventure film, The Land Before Time, the treestars consumed by Littlefoot and his clan were sweetgum leaves? (Maybe not, but I convinced my young children.)
Are you sold on sweetgum yet?
I think I forgot one more important drawback that could be a deal-breaker: sweetgum produces a multitude of miniature prickly seed balls that resemble mace-like gumballs.
The “gumballs” mature in the fall when the winged seeds escape from openings in each capsule and are dispersed by the wind. Some seeds escape and germinate in the Spring, but others fall prey to finches, squirrels, and other animals. After releasing their seeds the gumballs drop to the ground where they lie in wait for people’s unsuspecting bare feet or other tender body parts.
Although gumballs can be a painful nuisance as well as harmful projectiles when launched from the chute of a rotary lawn mower, Guy Sternberg and Jim Wilson, authors of Native Trees for North American Landscape (Timber Press, 2004), recommend using gumballs as a mulch in planting beds to deter cats from using them as outdoor litter boxes.
A more permanent solution, however, is to replace your existing trees with a fruitless sweetgum cultivar called 'Rotundiloba.’ Fruitless or roundleaf sweetgum has leaves with rounded lobes and a fall color that ranges from a bland yellow to purple. While this fruitless cultivar is not as bold and bodacious as a species of free-range sweetgum, it is free of gumballs, which will make you and your cats happy.