The sweetgum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua) may have a bit of a bad reputation, but our first president must have thought highly of it when he gave thirteen saplings of this North American native to Alexander Hamilton, his treasury secretary. Washington meant for the trees to symbolize the unity of the thirteen colonies. Hamilton, in turn, gave them a prominent spot at his Lower Manhattan estate, Hamilton Grange.
The sweetgum tree's bad reputation probably stems from the spikey, sphered fruit that covers the ground in late winter. The tree, however, has much to offer, and the fruit issue is easily remedied by removing the turf underfoot and replacing it with a skirt of light mulch. The sweetgum's leaves are similar in appearance to maple tree leaves and are a glossy dark green during the summer months. The fall colors are brilliant as well, ranging from gold, to red, to purple; often, these variances show up on a single tree! Sweetgum are large trees, reaching heights of 60-70’ tall and are, therefore, best planted where they will have plenty of space to grow.
Arlington National Cemetery has 124 sweetgum trees. A few are located along the road in Section 8, others in the valley area where Section 10 and 12 meet, and in Section 2 at the Kearney Monument.
The Section 2 sweet gum is a descendant of a sweet gum tree at Stratford Hall, home to four generations of the Lee family, — including Richard Henry Lee and Francis “Lightfoot” Lee, both of whom signed the Declaration of Independence, and, more famously, Robert E. Lee.
Photo by Rachel Larue, Arlington National Cemetery