Liquidambar (L. styraciflua), the sweet gum tree or bilsted, a large deciduous tree, placed by some botanists in a family by itself, while others unite it with the witch hazel and a few other genera to form the witch-hazel family, the hamamelacece. The tree grows 60 to 70 ft. high and 2 ft. or more in diameter, with a grayish bark; the small branches and twigs have the corky layer of the bark developed as prominent longitudinal ridges; the rounded leaves are five- to seven-lobed, giving them a star shape, unlike those of any others of our forest trees; the lobes are pointed and glandular serrate; the leaves are 3 to 6 in. in diameter, smooth and shining, and fragrant when bruised. The flowers are usually monoecious, in globular heads or catkins; the stami-nate clusters consist of numerous stamens intermixed with scales; the fertile flowers consist of two-celled, two-beaked ovaries, with scales in place of a calyx, and cohering in a globular head. The fruit is a spherical woody mass an inch or more in diameter, prickly with the hardened beaks of the ovaries; the seeds are small, winged, escaping from the head by openings between the beaks. But a very small proportion of the seeds perfect themselves, and the pods are filled with the abortive ones, which appear like sawdust.
The tree is found from southern New England to Illinois and southward to the gulf. The wood is soft, finegrained, and can be readily stained or polished, but on account of its want of durability can only be used for interior work; hence it has but little value as a timber tree, and it is a very poor fuel. A decoction of the bark is used as a domestic remedy in diarrhoea and other cases requiring astringents; the leaves of the tree, according to Porcher, contain large amounts of tannic and gallic acid, and their employment in tanning has been suggested. The generic name, which is a mongrel compound of Latin and Arabic, means liquid amber, and has reference to an exudation resembling storax, which is only developed in the tree in warm climates. (See Balsams.) The chief utility Of the tree is in its ornamental character; and for planting for decorative purposes it is in some respects not excelled by any other native of our forests. When crowded by other trees, it is drawn up with a straight trunk and presents but little beauty; but where it has room to properly develop itself, it forms a fine, broad, rounded head like a maple, and with its bright, clean, star-shaped leaves is a most attractive object.
Its greatest beauty is however seen in autumn; its foliage in ripening assumes various pleasing tints, ultimately becoming a dark purplish red or crimson, and adding essentially to the brilliancy of the autumn landscape. The tree is readily raised from seed, but cannot be successfully transplanted from the forest unless taken when very young.