Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Sweetgum Seedballs

Sweetgum trees are messy.

I probably wouldn't have identified a winter-bare sweetgum tree on a street corner today, if it hadn't been for the seedballs. The lawn and sidewalk beneath the tree's wide canopy were covered with them. Car tires had thrown many more seedballs against a concrete median in the street (photo above).

Sweetgum balls are woody, so they don't disintegrate quickly. A homeowner who wants a well-groomed lawn will need to rake up the prickly seedballs. They fall throughout winter, so they might have to be raked several times. Any seedballs left in the grass will be an unpleasant surprise for summer's barefoot strollers.

In an urban setting, the seeds from the spiny balls may be eaten by birds, squirrels, and chipmunks. In the wild, sweetgums often grow in swampy areas, and there, the seeds are also enjoyed by beavers.

Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) is a tall native tree of the southeastern U.S. In Kentucky, we are in the northern part of the sweetgum's natural range, though it is also found in southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio, near and within the Ohio River valley.

Sweetgum trees are noteworthy for their foliage. Their leaves are star-shaped, and their fall color may be orange, bright red or purple. The beauty of the leaves helps make up for the messiness of the tree's seed dispersal process.

4 comments -- please add yours:

Garden Blogger said...

Sweetgum balls are one of my favorite "seed pods."

Thomas said...

We use the seedballs for ornaments on our solstice shrub in winter. They are a beautiful addition to your arrangements or trees over the holiday season, and best of all they are natural. Everything goes right out to the compost pile at the end of the holiday season.

Genevieve said...

I was reminded a few days ago that the seedballs should be raked up and removed from a lawn. My future son-in-law described his memories of sweetgum balls, ricocheted out of a lawn mower. They can really hurt you.

The Christmas tree (or solstice shrub) would certainly be a safe, low-velocity place to enjoy the seedballs' unique structure.

Margaret said...

Hi There
Thought you might be interested to know that my friend and I were out for a drive along the Niagara River. We live in Niagara Falls, Ontario. We spotted a gorgeous tree - that actually had star pointed leaves - that were yellow some were green, and some were the scarlet red. At first I thought it might be in the maple family, but then saw the round pickly fruit balls. We found your blog checking out gumball trees - as my husband loves trees and suggested the name.
Appreciate your info. Are the seeds edible for humans?
Thank you

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Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

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