Thursday, March 24, 2011

For a Few Bags of Gumballs

Into each life, some Sweet Gum balls must fall. AMcC
Spray them gold if you must, but how many can you really use for decorations? Over at Nature in the Ozarks, Marvin has quite a list of nicknames for them, like "monkey ball" and "bommyknocker." Here is suburbia, we often use names that are, well, less polite. I'm talking, of course, about the dreaded, despised, despicable Sweet Gum ball. I spent hours this week scooping up the winter's load of gum balls, filling more than 4 huge paper "yard waste" sacks. After yesterday's high winds, the yard and driveway are just as covered as they ever were. This morning, my poor old long-haired dachshund came in with a half-dozen stuck in her tail. Steve Niks, at, found that Sweet Gum tied with the misnamed Tree of Heaven for "Most Hated Tree in America." So reviled is this barbed ball, that home owners sometimes lay out thousands of dollars to have the tree removed.

That's too bad because Sweet Gum, Liquidamber styraciflua, is really the archetype of trees. It's a big, healthy tree, and if utility company tree-trimmers don't come after it, the Sweet Gum will grow into a perfect pyramid. It doesn't have disease problems like crabapples. It won't split up in a storm, like Bradford pears. It doesn't stain your car, sidewalk, and white siding like mulberry; doesn't stink to high heaven like a Gingko. It's not invasive; in fact, it's native to Missouri and the East all the way south to Central America. What's more, according to USDA Forest Service, it won't produce the dreaded "cukoo bir" till it's 20 years old. So, if you're planning on moving within 19 years, go ahead and plant one! If not, be advised that Trees of Missouri, by Settergren and McDermott, records a tree in Tywappity Bottom (now Scott County in southeast Missouri) that was 140 feet tall and 5 feet wide at the trunk.
Tom Davis managed to capture an image of a winter-plumaged Am. Goldfinch with a Sweet Gum seed in its beak!
The leaves are five-pointed stars, a beautiful deep green in summer. Fall color is red and purple—out of this world! Sweet Gums are excellent shade trees. My neighbor's trees shade my roof, according to the USDA Forest Service, reducing my cooling costs by 30%, and 10-50% reduction in heating, according to the Missouri Dept. of Conservation

Saint James is the Sweet Gum Capital of Missouri, although even in that fair city, there seems to be some controversy about the "conkleberry."
Freshly emerged Luna Moth, photo by Sophro
There are creatures that love Sweet Gums: finches, squirrels, luna moths and, reportedly, a few suburban humans. In his book, Caterpillars of Eastern North America, David Wagner lists Sweet Gum as one of the hosts of Luna, Regal (Royal Walnut), and Promethea moths. Worth a few bags of gum balls, don't you think?


  1. We have one, a very nice one! But those danged balls are hazardous for walking...if even one is left on my sidewalk, I'll step on it and down I go! Happened more than once, lol!

  2. They can be a menace! Perhaps another common name should be "ankle-breaker."

  3. Where I went to college there was a sweet gum tree that turned colors in the fall from the bottom up, so that at the right time, the top 1/3 was green, the middle 1/3 was yellow and the bottom 1/3 was red. Unfortunately, the tree in our front yard does not do that.

  4. My neighbors' trees are spectacular in fall, mostly red, orange, and purple. I have never noticed which end gets color first, so I'll have to look for that!

  5. She's very patient while I pull the gumballs out of her tail! I do love the trees on most days of the year.