The amber tree (Liquidambar styraciflua) has its natural habitat in southeastern North America between Illinois and Texas as well as in northern Central America. It grows in river valleys and on humid mountain slopes on deep, nutrient-rich soils. Only a few years ago the amber tree belonged to the botanical family of the witch hazel family (Hamamelidaceae). The Latin name Liquidambar is composed of “liquid” (Latin for “liquid”) and “anbr” (Arabic for “amber”). With injury of the trunk, a sweetly smelling resin, also called Storax, escapes. The Indians used it as a natural chewing gum and even today it is still used as a raw material for chewing gum production. The storax of the Oriental Amber tree is used in aromatherapy, in perfume and soap production, and in tobacco blends. In natural medicine, the resin is considered anti-inflammatory and expectorant. Since the 18th century, the amber tree has replaced the actual storax tree (Styrax americanus) in resin production because it is more productive.
In the USA, the amber tree is also planted as a forest tree for timber production. Its hard, aromatically scented wood is particularly in demand in furniture carpentry. In colour and grain it resembles the walnut.
The amber tree usually has a narrow, conical crown with a continuous central shoot. Older specimens are more widespread and can grow over 20 metres high in mild regions. The grey-barked trunk is deeply furrowed and also the older shoots carry wide cork-bars.
The amber tree is one of the most beautiful autumn-coloured garden shrubs. In contrast to maple, the five- to seven-lobed, maple-like leaves are alternately arranged, have a shiny green surface and can grow up to 13 centimeters long. The foliage usually discolors already at the end of September and bears various nuances of yellow orange, carmine red and black violet. Often even one and the same sheet shows several colour tones.
The amber tree is monoecious, i.e. it carries male and female flowers separately on one plant. Both flowers are quite inconspicuous: The male inflorescences are greenish, mostly upright, five to seven centimeter long ears. The female flowers are slightly more conspicuous and are found in small hanging, chestnut-like spheres. Flowering time is in May.
The spherical fruits are composed of many woody capsules and have a diameter of two to three centimeters.
Location and soil
The amber tree prefers a full sunny location. At the same time, however, it should stand somewhat sheltered from the wind, otherwise it will lose its colourful leaves quite early in autumn. Amber trees thrive best on moderately moist, loose and deep loamy soils. They grow very slowly on poor sandy soils. If the lime content in the soil is too high, the leaves turn yellow. Amber trees also react sensitively to waterlogging and soil compaction. The trees in full sunny locations on moderately nutrient-rich, not too moist soils show the most beautiful autumn colouring.
Planting and care
Smaller amber trees should preferably be planted in spring, as this will help them get through the first winter. In the first year we recommend a winter protection from foliage and fir brushwood. Larger specimens can be easily planted in autumn. However, you should wrap the trunk with jute or a reed mat to protect it from frost cracking. Careful soil preparation is necessary to ensure that the autumn colouring is satisfactory: Wet soils should be deeply loosened before planting and possibly emaciated by working in sand. Dry sandy soils can be improved by working in composted horse manure and deciduous humus.
Bark mulch and horn shavings in the our store-Shop
Do not plant your amber tree too deep, because it reacts very sensitively. The surface of the bale should only be covered with a thin layer of soil. After planting, larger trees are supported with a planting pole or tripod. Water them thoroughly and cover the root area with a mulch layer of leaf or bark humus. If you use conventional bark mulch, you should first spread a few handfuls of horn shavings in the root area.
Otherwise the amber tree does not need any special care measures. Young amber trees grow quite slowly at first, so you should fertilize freshly planted specimens with horn shavings in spring and water them in good time during drought. Older, well ingrown amber trees generally manage without additional nutrients and water.
Amber trees are well tolerated for pruning, but unlike fruit trees they do not require regular care or maintenance pruning. It is best to let them grow undisturbed and only remove a few frozen shoots in spring. If you want to grow a high trunk from a young amber tree, you should gradually trim the trunk to the desired crown height by cutting off the branches directly at the astrings.
Amber trees are predestined for individual placement due to their size and the magnificent autumn colouring in the garden. If you have the space, you can also plant them as a small group. A beautiful play of colours is created when they are combined with yellow autumn colours such as ginkgo or gingerbread. In front of a dark deciduous hedge or with evergreen planting partners, the luminosity of the amber tree comes into its own in autumn.
Since its roots are not very competitive, the amber tree should only be underplanted with tolerant perennials and ground coverers. Funkien, forest bellflowers, autumn anemones, monkshoods, rogersias and bulbous flowers are a good match. The loose crown of the amber tree lets through relatively much light, so that it is also suitable as a location for some bedding shrubs.
You will find great planting partners in the our store shop.
If you want to buy an amber tree, it makes sense to do so in autumn. So you can choose the specimen with the most beautiful autumn colouring in the tree nursery or in the garden centre on site. The amber trees propagated by sowing have different autumn colours. If you do not have this option, we recommend that you buy a special variety with proven autumn colouring so that you do not experience any unpleasant surprises afterwards. In addition to the various autumn colours, there are also varieties with special growth forms. Here is a small selection:
Hanging amber tree (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Pendula’): overhanging growth, slow growing, yellow autumn colouring
White amber tree (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Silver King’): slim growth, growth 15 centimeters per year, white leaf margins, fascinating color gradient in autumn
American amber tree (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Stared’): fast-growing, safe autumn colouring, no cork strips
Column amber tree (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Slender Silhouette’): slender growth, approx. one metre in diameter, suitable for small gardens
Yellow shoot amber tree (Liquidambar styraciflua ‘Shocks Gold’): compact growth, golden-yellow shoots, slightly greened in summer, red autumn colouring
Gumball’: high trunk grafting with compact spherical crown, autumn colouring not as pronounced as with other varieties
Recommendations from the our store-Shop
Amber trees are propagated either by sowing or by grafting. As already mentioned, the grafted specimens colour their foliage very reliably, depending on the variety, while the seedlings can vary greatly in the expression of their autumn colours.
Diseases and pests
The amber tree is one of the few trees that are hardly ever attacked by pests and diseases.
I am Don Burke, one of the authors at My Garden Guide. I am a horticulturist that cultivates, grows, and cares for plants, ranging from shrubs and fruits to flowers. I do it in my own garden and in my nursery. I show you how to take care of your garden and how to perform garden landscaping in an easy way, step by step.I am originally from Sydney and I wrote in local magazines. Later on, I have decided, more than two decades ago, to create my own blog. My area of specialization is related to orchid care, succulent care, and the study of the substrate and the soil. Therefore, you will see many articles dedicated to these disciplines. I also provide advice about how to improve the landscape design of your garden.