Liquid Amber

sunlight through its branches

sunlight through its branches

Liquidambar styraciflua Sweet gum is a low-maintenance deciduous tree typically found in moist low woods and along streams. It grows to 60-80’ tall with a straight trunk. Habit is pyramidal in youth, but it gradually develops an oval-rounded crown as it matures. The common name of sweet gum refers to an aromatic balsam or gum that exudes from wounds to the tree. In further reference to this gum, the genus name basically means liquid amber and the specific epithet means flowing storax. This gum has been used in the past for a variety of purposes, including chewing gum, incense, perfumes, folk medicines and flavorings.

The tree is easily grown in average, medium moisture, well-drained soils in full sun. It is also intolerant of shade, prefers deep, moist, fertile soils, but seems to tolerate a wide variety of soils. Liquidambar is not reliably winter hardy in the northern areas of USDA Zone 5

LiquidAmber 2005

2005 Pruned the new growth back
heavily to encourage branching

This tree was offered as a workshop with Ted Matson at the Golden State Convention in Woodland Hills, CA on November 2, 2001. His workshop covered Detailed Deciduous Refinement. Ray Blasingame was the grower and he had spent the last 8 to 10 years with great care with maintenance pruning.

The steps for Detailed Deciduous Refinement of this tree included the following steps. First, defoliate and remove all dead branches. The gaseous smell is usual for this tree but it was the first time I had experienced it and was intrigued with it. Ted continued by explaining , to promote good branching get rid of clusters, pay attention to scaring so clean the scar immediately. Use a dremel tool to remove deadwood if needed. Then seal all scars.

LiquidAmber Bud

Buds on trunk should be removed

Reduce top growth to encourage balanced growth and allow a sacrifice branch to grow to thicken a branch or trunk. Cut this branch at the end of the season. Additionally reduce top buds on each branch by rubbing with your finger. Do this continuously in March and April in WI. (Nov, to Feb in CA). Follow by removing terminal buds to encourage more budding

Following the steps Ted set up for me, I continued refining this tree. During a review in 2004, Ted suggested I allow lower branches to get longer to form triangles.

LiquidAmber Study Group work 2007

Study group work in 2007

In 2007, I was ready to work on ramification. So by 2008 the tree was ready for showing at State Fair were it took first place and an Award of Merit. The judge, Marty Schmalenberg had the following comments: the pot feels a little heavy in the composition, should be lighter and or glazed. Trunk placement should have smaller tree forward to cut down on the angle of space. Avoid side by side placement. Reduce and create new apex on larger tree.

Next step for this tree during a review with Ted, included pruning to one leaf and removing all upward leaves so more sun gets into the tree. Ted suggested shortening one of the upper branches on tall tree to maintain silhouette. This was June 2009 that winter was very hard on this tree. By Spring of 2010 I had lost several branches, the tree was very weak

Repotted this tree into an oversized pot in April of 2011 to help its recovery, changed the soil mix by adding New Zealand moss to help hold water. By October the tree was worse. This tree has suffered from what appears to be a serious fungus disease. I began treating with Bayer’s Disease Control and removed all dead branches.

Reworking the apex

Reworking the apex

In the Spring of 2012, I start to establish new structure by removing inside branches trying to keep large lower branches. Picked two top buds to form new apex. Over the next few months, wired and rewired to redo the the structure of these trees, changed the apex of the taller tree to mimic the smaller tree’s apex. Tree has recovered nicely. Removed all extra newer branches and pruned to maintain triangular shape and trimmed leaves to encourage smaller internodes.

LiquidAmber 2013


Re-potted into a nice Sara Raynor pot and later entered this tree into the Chicago Bonsai Show in August 2013, where it took 3rd place. The judge was Bjorn Bjorholm whose only comment was to turn the tree around (as it was displayed backward).