Fooled by a tree

December 13, 2011

By Jane Garrison

Every time my husband and I drive down East Lake Sammamish Parkway, he asks me what the beautiful trees are that line the west side. As we whiz by my usual reply is “some kind of red maple.” I didn’t ever get too excited, because we have so many red maple trees in Issaquah.

Then this fall I noticed they didn’t drop their leaves at the same time as the other red maples. In fact, on Dec. 7, they still had their beautiful, brilliant red leaves. I became very curious. Since it’s impossible to stop or even slow down on East Lake Sammamish Parkway, I thought some day I can walk down here and check out these trees.

Yesterday I was taking the off-ramp from Interstate 405 onto Northeast Eighth Street in Bellevue, and I noticed a beautiful tree, larger and older than the ones on East Lake Sammamish Parkway, but the same variety. It, too, was in full, brilliant foliage with just a few leaves on the pavement. With a fear of being run over or arrested, I jumped out of my car and grabbed a leaf. It was not a maple.

At home I checked out the leaf, and the name, sweetgum, popped into my head. But the tree was too beautiful. American sweetgums always look like they have been in a wrestling match — craggy, twiggy looking, each a rugged individual — not good when you are trying to create a formal row. These trees on East Lake Sammamish Parkway are spreading, all similar in shape with graceful branching and outstanding reddish color.

I’m going out on a limb to say that the tree is the “burgundy” variety of American sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua “burgundy.” There are many varieties, but I base my selection on the fact that these trees are holding their leaves into winter, a characteristic of the burgundy variety. What an improvement over the species!

Here’s the best part. We have a shortage of deciduous tree choices for urban conditions in our region. Our native forests do not include a good deciduous tree that tolerates pavement and compacted soil conditions. This tree is amazing. It is long-lived and thrives in our acidic, heavy soil and poor drainage. Native to the temperate regions of the eastern U.S. and Mexico, it can’t take really cold winters. We don’t have really cold winters, so it likes it here. The only negative is the fruit — persistent, prickly, brittle, round balls that have earned different, unflattering names across the country.

Guessing at tree types is not advisable in a newspaper column, but I am open to corrections or discussion. I could ask the county, but I’d rather ask you.

Jane Garrison is a local landscape architect and master gardener who gardens in glacial till on the Plateau.

Master gardening clinics are over for the year. Reach experts through the Center for Urban Horticulture at 206-685-5104 and online at

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