Of all the decisions we have to make about what we want to plant in our gardens, choosing a tree is the most difficult. If we put an unsuitable herbaceous plant in the wrong place there is no problem in moving it to another part of the garden (indeed, many gardeners I know spend their whole lives moving plants from one place to another). Make that kind of a mistake with a tree and you have to live with the constant reminder of your error, assuming the tree survives.
There are so many considerations to be weighed when choosing a tree: its eventual height and spread; its root run; the shade it will cast; its growing requirements; the home it will provide to wildlife. But all of these take second place to its beauty, and I know of no one who is not bewitched by the splendour of the American sweet-gum, Liquidambar styraciflua.
Growing to about 50ft high and 25ft wide in Britain, Liquidambar has a corky bark and green maple-like leaves. It prefers a good moist soil and a site that is out of strong winds but adapts to most conditions and once established will handle drought.
The knobbly ridges of the trunk demand to be touched and its contours traced out by your fingers. My tree is only twelve years old but the gnarled ridges on the bark make the patterns of a centenarian.
The real beauty of the tree, though, is in its autumn colour. Even in the warmer areas of Britain it reliably produces the colours of a New England autumn. The leaves of many trees and shrubs grown for autumn colour change quickly to a single colour; the Liquidamber transforms itself stealthily, a few leaves today, more tomorrow and each truly a different colour.
The result is a kaleidoscope of colours: dark greens, fiery reds and oranges, translucent yellows, mournful purples and even deep mahoganies. When I lived in France I would enclose Liquidamber leaves in letters to friends to show them what they were missing. Look on the ground around the tree on a bright crisp autumn morning when the leaves are falling and it seems that an artist such as Andy Goldsworthy has passed by during the night. But nature, of course, can surpass even the finest artist.