5 Best Ways to Find the Largest Sum of Any Path in a Binary Tree Using Python

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πŸ’‘ Problem Formulation: Given a binary tree, the goal is to find the largest sum of values along any path from the root to a leaf. A binary tree is a tree data structure in which each node has at most two children, referred to as the left child and the right child. For instance, in a tree with root node value of 10 and two paths ending in leaf nodes with values 20 and -25, the largest sum would be the path that gives us 10 + 20 = 30.

Method 1: Recursive Depth-First Search (DFS)

The recursive DFS approach entails visiting each node and calculating the sum of values from the root to that node, then taking the maximum of such sums. It leverages the call stack naturally provided by recursive function calls to keep track of potential paths, and it is well-suited to inherently recursive structures like trees.

Here’s an example:

class TreeNode:
    def __init__(self, x):
        self.val = x
        self.left = None
        self.right = None

def maxPathSum(root):
    def dfs(node):
        if not node:
            return 0
        left_sum = max(dfs(node.left), 0)
        right_sum = max(dfs(node.right), 0)
        return node.val + max(left_sum, right_sum)
    return dfs(root)

# Example Tree
root = TreeNode(10)
root.left = TreeNode(2)
root.right = TreeNode(10)
root.left.left = TreeNode(20)
root.left.right = TreeNode(1)
root.right.right = TreeNode(-25)
root.right.right.left = TreeNode(3)
root.right.right.right = TreeNode(4)




This code snippet defines a basic binary tree structure and a function maxPathSum() that uses a nested, helper function dfs() to traverse the tree and compute the maximum path sum. The helper function accumulates the best sum as it recursively explores each path down the tree.

Method 2: Iterative DFS with Stack

The iterative DFS method uses an explicit stack to perform a depth-first traversal of the tree while keeping track of the cumulative sums. It imitates the recursive stack mechanism, while possibly giving more control over the traversal and potentially reducing function call overhead.

Here’s an example:

def maxPathSumIterative(root):
    if not root:
        return 0

    stack = [(root, root.val)]
    max_sum = float('-inf')

    while stack:
        node, current_sum = stack.pop()
        if not node.left and not node.right:
            max_sum = max(max_sum, current_sum)

        if node.right:
            stack.append((node.right, current_sum + node.right.val))

        if node.left:
            stack.append((node.left, current_sum + node.left.val))

    return max_sum



This snippet introduces a non-recursive traversal of the binary tree using a stack. The function maxPathSumIterative() updates the maximum sum seen so far, if a leaf node is reached, by considering the cumulative sum of the current path.

Method 3: Dynamic Programming on Trees

Dynamic Programming on trees involves solving the problem for every subtree and using the results to build up the solution for the complete tree. It often involves storing sub-results to avoid redundant work, making it efficient for trees where sub-problems overlap.

Here’s an example:

def maxPathSumDP(root):
    memo = {}
    def dfs(node):
        if not node:
            return 0
        if node in memo:
            return memo[node]
        left_sum = max(dfs(node.left), 0)
        right_sum = max(dfs(node.right), 0)
        memo[node] = node.val + max(left_sum, right_sum)
        return memo[node]
    return dfs(root)



The maxPathSumDP() function in this code snippet employs a dynamic programming approach where intermediate sums are stored in a memoization dictionary to avoid recomputing the maximum path sums for subtrees.

Method 4: Tail Recursion Optimization

This approach uses a variation of recursion known as tail recursion, where the recursive call is in the tail position (i.e., the last action in the function). Although Python does not inherently optimize tail-recursive calls, this method highlights a recursion style that could be optimized in other programming environments.

Here’s an example:

def maxPathSumTail(root):
    def dfs(node, current_sum):
        if not node:
            return current_sum

        left_sum = dfs(node.left, current_sum + node.val) if node.left else current_sum
        right_sum = dfs(node.right, current_sum + node.val) if node.right else current_sum
        return max(left_sum, right_sum, current_sum)
    return dfs(root, 0)



In this code snippet, we have the maxPathSumTail() function that performs a tail recursion to calculate the maximum path sum. The function dfs() takes the current sum as an argument and returns it with the maximum between both subtrees.

Bonus One-Liner Method 5: Using Built-in Python Features

A one-liner would typically use Python’s built-in features in a clever way to solve the problem succinctly. However, the complex nature of tree traversal makes pure one-liner solutions somewhat impractical and hard to read, but for the sake of demonstration, here’s a condensed version using Python’s built-in features.

Here’s an example:

maxPathSumOneLiner = lambda root: max(
    maxPathSumOneLiner(root.left) + root.val if root.left else 0,
    maxPathSumOneLiner(root.right) + root.val if root.right else 0
) if root else 0




This one-liner defines a lambda function that uses Python’s conditional expressions and recursion to find the maximum path sum in a more condensed line of code.


  • Method 1: Recursive Depth-First Search. Strengths: Straightforward implementation, no extra data structures needed. Weaknesses: May lead to stack overflow for very deep trees.
  • Method 2: Iterative DFS with Stack. Strengths: Avoids potential stack overflow of recursion, offers more control during traversal. Weaknesses: More complex than recursive solution, might be less intuitive.
  • Method 3: Dynamic Programming on Trees. Strengths: Stores intermediate results for efficiency, avoids redundant computations. Weaknesses: Extra memory usage for memoization.
  • Method 4: Tail Recursion Optimization. Strengths: Conceptual simplicity and potential for optimization in some languages. Weaknesses: Python does not optimize tail calls, and for large trees, a stack overflow might occur.
  • Method 5: Bonus One-Liner Method. Strengths: Extremely concise. Weaknesses: Readability is poor, and debugging can be challenging.