The potentially perilous seed pods of a Sweet Gum tree
It may sound ridiculous at first, but my four-year-old had to go to urgent care last week because of something called a Sweet Gum ball. The name may suggest this emergency was oriented around candy, but Sweet Gum balls, also known as “space bugs,” “monkey balls” or “goblin bombs,” aren’t something you’d want in your mouth. They’re one-and-a-half-inch seed pods from a Sweet Gum tree, covered in woody spikes and famous for littering yards all over suburban America. In this case, a good fall managed to break open my kids’ forehead enough to require surgical glue, so it seemed like a good reason to learn more about what’s growing in the yard.
While the seed pods may decidedly unpleasant to have against your skin, the Sweet Gum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua) they come from are actually quite nice. Characterized by deep-grooved, “alligator skin” bark, five- to seven-pointed leaves and a pleasing overall shape, these trees have been planted in many neighborhoods as ornamental landscape pieces. The trees are especially picturesque in the late fall, when their leaves turn gold, purple and red, and are relatively pleasant to see all over the ground afterwards.
Uses beyond appearances
None of this is especially sweet or gummy of course, but the name is actually based on what’s inside the tree, not outside. The resin in the Sweet Gum tree has been linked to a huge variety of medicinal treatments. Explorer Francisco Hernandez claimed it could treat gonorrhea, diphtheria, and indigestion. Other applications focused around skin conditions or dysentery. The Cherokee even used the sap to help treat wounds, probably including those inflicted by the tree’s seedpods.
Not many people are relying on the tree’s sap for curatives these days, but many are dealing with the seed pods. In the spring and summer, a tree is likely to grow and drop what feels like an overwhelming supply of the tough, spiked balls. The large spikes, which may have once helped latch the balls onto some long-lost megafuana’s fur now only serve to keep larger animals from easily accessing the sides inside the pod. Smaller birds and squirrels have found ways to access the seeds, but that ecological utility isn’t quite enough for some people. To cut down on the risk of puncture wounds, some people are injecting their Sweet Gum trees with what is effectively birth control, stopping them from producing the seed pods in the first place.
My second-grader said: I use them as pencil-sharpeners by twisting a pencil into the empty seed holes.
That may be one of the less common uses of a Sweet Gum ball, but people are definitely interested in putting them to work. They can be used in gardening to defend plants, help drain soil, or add to compost. They’re also used in a lot of craft projects, often focused around wreaths or ornaments. If you have an idea, or a need for a very uncomfortable pencil-sharpener, you can always order a bag of balls without investing in an entire tree.
Source: The Most Dangerous Tree in the Suburbs by W. Kerrigan, American Orchard