Up front, I must admit that fall is my favorite season. I am not one of those people, recently described in a Harper's, article who love the decay; I just like the change, the crisp air and the bright colors.
I also confess to finding fall a lot more delightful outside of Southern California. If I could, I'd spend every fall in New Hampshire, where I could watch the maples burst into flame; or among the aspens that turn strips of Utah's Aquarius Plateau into bands of gold; or in Yosemite Valley, where dogwoods turn scarlet at the base of bright, yellow maples.
But here in Southern California, I find that there is one tree that saves the day. The liquidambar may not be the brightest spot in our show of fall color, but it certainly lends the most support. The planting I like best is on Westwood Boulevard, only a half-block away from my house. The trees seem to have been planted about the same time my house was built, in the late 1940s, and they have grown immense in the sandy loam of Rancho Park. Each one turns a different shade, from nearly purple into red and out the other side into various yellows and golds.
In the low, early-morning autumn sun, when I'm on my way to work, the effect simulates stained-glass windows of cathedral proportions. At the other end of my commute, downtown, I always detour a block or two to catch the liquidambars pictured here. They recall the big-leaf maples in Yosemite that are seen against the shadowy granite valley walls, though the city trees are viewed against the black rock of the twin towers at Arco Plaza.
The leaves on liquidambars turn color slowly and, in my neighborhood, hang on for a long, long time--which helps draw out the season. In other parts of town, especially in the San Fernando Valley, a harsh Santa Ana wind may bring the curtain down a little faster. But even after the leaves fall, they lay resplendent on the sidewalk. I've noticed that some of the homeowners on Westwood graciously leave their rakes in their garages during November so that the rest of us can enjoy kicking up piles of variously colored leaves on early morning walks. Thanks.
I should also thank the City of Los Angeles, because it decided to repave the boulevard without cutting down the liquidambars, even though the trees were at fault. They have aggressive surface roots that lift sidewalks, and, in this case, even curbs and asphalt. It was no easy task to replace the fractured curbs along Westwood Boulevard.
The roots also make it difficult to garden under a liquidambar; you would be wise to not even try, though a few sturdy shrubs will compete; holly and pyracantha are full of berries when the liquidambars are in color. Lawns grow reasonably well beneath these trees, and vice versa; liquidambars tolerate lawns at their feet, which most trees object to.
People often ask whether they can remove these surface roots. The answer is that you can, with great difficulty, sever some of the most objectionable roots and dig them out; the tree won't fall over. But if you give the trees deep waterings about once a month, and place some fertilizer a foot or so into the soil--down little holes that you have made with an auger--you'll encourage the roots to forage deeper for moisture and nutrients. A liquidambar growing where it does not get regular garden watering will have few surface roots.
One subject I can no longer discuss with a certain good friend is what he calls "ambar balls"--the prickly fruit that children like to throw at one another. After the leaves fall, the ambar balls ornament the trees for most of the winter, but in early spring they so cover the sidewalks that the pavement resembles a mine field. They must be raked up by the thousands. That caused my friend to cut down his liquidambar street tree, a shocking deed. How he managed to convince the city that a short, stubby crape myrtle would make a suitable replacement is beyond me, though crape myrtles also color up nicely in the fall and are exceptionally nice trees in the garden, if not quite grand enough for an avenue.
There's no way around the ambar balls, so one might as well decide to like them before planting this tree. They are very pretty in winter and they can become a ritual of spring with a little prior programming. You could learn to look forward to the job of raking them up as a sign that winter is over and spring has arrived.
Liquidambars grow rather quickly; you seldom see anything in between the size of a small liquidambar and a very big one. There are three kinds--one that grows much taller than the others. Unfortunately, or fortunately for those of us who like big trees, it is the tall grower that turns the best colors in autumn. The American sweet gum, Liquidambar styraciflua , attains a height of 60 or more feet.