It is most commonly recognizable by the combination of its five-pointed star-shaped leaves and its hard, spiked fruits. Liquidambar styraciflua is a medium-sized to large tree, growing anywhere from 15 to 21 m in cultivation and up to 46 m in the wild, with a trunk up 0.61 to 0.91 m in diameter, on average. The bark attaches itself to these in plates edgewise instead of laterally, and a piece of the leafless branch with the aid of a little imagination readily takes on a reptilian form; indeed, the tree is sometimes called alligator-wood. The bark is a light brown tinged with red and sometimes gray with dark streaks and weighs 37 lbs. per cubic foot. It is deeply fissured with scaly ridges. The branches carry layers of cork. The branchlets are pithy, many-angled, winged, and at first covered with rusty hairs, finally becoming red brown, gray or dark brown. The leaves usually have five (but sometimes three or seven) sharply pointed palmate lobes. They are 3 to 5 inches wide on average and have three distinct bundle scars. The flowers typically appear in March to May and persist into Autumn, sometimes persisting into the Winter. They are typically about 25 to 38 mm in diameter and are covered with rusty hairs. The flowers are unisexual and greenish in color. The distinctive compound fruit is hard, dry, and globose, 25 to 38 mm in diameter, composed of numerous (40 to 60) capsules. Each capsule, containing one to two small seeds, has a pair of terminal spikes (for a total of 80 to 120 spikes). When the fruit opens and the seeds are released, each capsule is associated with a small hole (40 to 60 of these) in the compound fruit.
Found in mixed and deciduous forests as well as used as an ornamental tree in landscaping.