Spiky balls from trees

Preventing a Sweetgum Tree From Making Balls

Archive: Sweet Gum Tree Advice

July 28, 2009

How can I keep a Sweet Gum tree from making seed balls? I have five or six around my yard and pick up 10 to 15 wheelbarrow loads each spring. Tom from Winston Salem, NC


Sweet Gum Tree Advice

Place them in any size jar and sell as Porcupine Eggs or give them as gifts. For Christmas decorations, spray gold or silver then roll in glitter. Or, leave natural and let the kids come up their own ideas/designs. Sell them to the flu vaccine manufacturers. Who knows what they sell for. (10/10/2006)

By texylady

I have come up with one use for the “porcupine balls” as I call them. I put them in the bottom of my potted plants (annuals) instead of rocks, for drainage. At the end of the season, I just dump the whole thing in the compost pile and don’t have to dig out the rocks. I have also heard of making table top Christmas trees out of them, but haven’t tried it myself. (07/09/2007)

By Lesa from IN

By Bozidar Djordjevic, Ph.D.

As an alumnus of Rutgers University (Ph.D., in Microbiology, l960) and presently residing in Westfield, NJ, I encountered a situation which could be of considerable interest to the New Jersey agriculture in general and Rutgers University in particular.

I have a patentable proposal that is realistic and rewarding. It deals with a common problem in suburban horticulture: that some of the most popular decorative trees become with time a bothersome nuisance. Such is the case with the so called gumball trees, which produce fruiting bodies lasting over a good portion of the vegetation season. Not only are these bodies long lasting (do not readily decay), but also do not fall to the ground at the same time rendering collection time consuming and damaging to lawns. In addition, these ping-pong sized bodies (gumballs) are an actual physical hazard, when stepped onto them.

There is a period during gumball formation which is particularly sensitive to outside interference. We have established that the simple expedient of inserting a copper nail (or a piece of copper tubing with an ordinary nail) before the actual start of vegetation suffices to achieve the desired inhibitory effect on gumball formation. To assure prevention of lasting damage to the tree, copper inserts should be removed at the time of gumball maturation in control (untreated) trees.

Our experience is limited to one vegetation season, but the procedure seems to be working nevertheless. Whether the copper treatment should be repeated, and whether the combination of copper tubing with steel nails is truly beneficial, remains to be determined. It is our opinion therefore, that we should proceed with the provisional patenting procedure.


By Bozidar Djordjevic, Westfield, NJ

My advice is not how to stop sweet gum balls from falling, but to warn you that pets, especially puppies love to play with them when they are dried. My puppy swallowed one and I’ve spent the last 10 days thinking she had a virus only to find out that wasn’t the case. I am hopeful that the LSU vets can do an endoscopy and remove it to prevent surgery. Very expensive lesson. Animal lovers beware. (03/13/2008)

By Baton Rouge

I previously was the Director at a pre-school. Unfortunately the play yard had a sweet gum tree and the nasty little seed balls were not acceptable in that type of yard. There is a fruit inhibitor which can be sprayed on the tree in early spring just before the tree blossoms. However if the tree is very large, as ours was, it can be very costly. Several hundred dollars each spring. (03/31/2008)

By Kathryn

I have 2 gum trees and I too have many gum balls. What I did last year was rake up the balls around the tree and use it as a sort of mulch. I also have planted iris’s around the tree so the gum ball help keep my dogs away from the iris’s. I hope this may help some one. May be you can bag them up and sell as mulch cause they don’t wash away like commercial mulch does. Maybe I will do that myself and make some money. The supply is always plentiful. (07/19/2008)

By Donna

Reading through all these postings, I didn’t see anyone mention the feature of this tree that I enjoy the most – crush some leaves in your hand and they produce a smell like turpentine. I don’t like gathering up the thousands of “spiny balls” either, but I do enjoy the shade provided by the one tree we have in our front yard.

Hey, I haven’t gotten the flu in several years. Maybe inhaling the “fumes” from the crushed leaves has something to do with it? Caution: some folks (such as my wife) may experience negative effects from this practice, but I really enjoy it. (07/22/2008)

By Saul H. from Gahanna, OH

My 9 year experience with a twenty year old sweet gum tree is: 1) the spikey balls are good for nothing, except building muscles raking the never ending supply, 2) it will raise the floor of your garage an 1 1/2″ in the course of a couple of months and evidently crack it, 3) the branches, at any age, will easily snap in a wind storm – and aim for your roof, 4) the wood burns well, but only after it dries for three years, AND, 5) unless you dig all the roots out once you’ve fallen the tree and dug out the stump, you will continue to have sweet gum starts all over your world for years. Good luck.

By guest

People. The previous homeowner of our house grew the “seedless” variety. Yes, they exist. No seed balls at all. It’s a beautiful tree and serves a purpose. Scientists just discovered the flesh of the seed balls treats bird flu. This tree needs moist soil. Make sure the soil stays at least slightly moist at all times.


By Mark from VA

SAVED OUR LIVES: Sweetgum Tree

We hated the tree; the previous owner planted it. We couldn’t walk barefoot in our back yard without raking first. We lived in Newport News, VA and when hurricane Andrew hit, our city along with others were out of electricity from more then two weeks. Everyone began to run out of charcoal, propane, lighter fluid, etc. Without lighter fluid, it took awhile for the coals to start. (We used old cooking oil).

My Mother from Michigan suggested that we “use the sweetgum seeds to start the fire”. She was right, the fire started quickly and burned for a very long time. They burned longer then the charcoal. When we ran out of charcoal and began using wood, the results were even better. What was once an irritant became a life saver. My husband and I went on a scavenger hunt trying to unearth as many as possible, we dug up as many as we could. One day when our supply was getting low, we remembered that we had bags of leaves that weren’t collected yet. We were so happy. You would have thought that we struck gold. For two weeks, we had a strong roaring fire. And the popping and the crackling of the sweetgum tree seeds in the fire sounded like music to our ears.

When the people around us could no longer keep meat and dairy, we could. We filled our deep freezer with gallon jars of water (long before the hurricane). It kept our freezer ice cold and our meat and milk safe to consume. (Another tip we got from my Mom in Michigan (Maxine)). Thank You Mom. (09/02/2008)

By Tab

For all you that don’t like sweet gum trees, get some goats, mine have cleaned up every tree they could munch on and none come back because the goats eat as soon as anything on them sprouts. No problem here. (09/22/2008)

By Intha

To Reedlog AT: We dug out the stump and the roots out away from the tree for 4 to 5 feet. For three years now, we have had babies all over the lawn. We have tried Round-up, stump killer, lye, all to no avail. The roots seem to sprout up when they have the combination of water and light, I think light being the key.

We finally had to dig the roots out to where they tapered down to just an inch or so and be sure to leave nothing exposed to light. No babies for about six months now, but will have to replant the lawn next spring because of all the digging. (10/14/2008)

By Janet

If you have gum trees around your property and are able to cut them, you need to do it as soon as possible. I live in South Carolina and they are getting worse and worse every year. If we ever have a world-wide nuclear war, there will be only two living things left; a cockroach and a gum tree.
Everything everyone said bad here about these trees is absolutely true. They are taking over but must band together and continue the fight for future generations. (11/18/2008)

By Greg

We have 2 Sweet Gum Ball trees, and we have found that the sticky balls burn well in our “backyard fire pit” (we bought ours at Lowe’s, they have several models). And surprisingly, the sticky balls have a pleasant odor when burned.

By Daisy Jane

Comment Was this helpful?

It’s Sweet Gum Ball time of year again and that means you may find yourself slipping on these prickly round seeds. Before you write them off as just a nuisance, consider these simple ways to utilize the Sweet Gum Ball Tree and it’s falling “fruit”.

It’s currently flu season, which means many people are home either recuperating from or avoiding this awful sickness. But did you know there may be a natural remedy in your backyard? The infertile seeds of the sweet gum ball contain shikimic acid, which is also contained in the same tree used to make Tamiflu. If you’re up for some experimenting, Sweet Gum Balls can been used to make a tea from boiling the young green seeds. The resulting decoction is known for it’s antiviral properties and can be used as a preventative measure against sickness, or as a remedy for the flu. (Consult your doctor if symptoms persist.) See our newer post on Sweetgum Balls & Tamiflu!

Let’s not forget about the beauty of the Sweet Gum Ball Tree itself. This large tree provides shade in the summer, gorgeous orange, red, and yellow leaves in the fall, and is a great privacy barrier. The fruit it bears provides food for many animals including squirrels, wood ducks, whitetail deer, birds, and beavers.

These trees are also ideal for reforestation projects because they grow quickly and are resistant to insects. The wood is great for timber because of its gorgeous interlocked grain. It’s easy to shape, stain, and paint. There are also lots of crafts you can make for gifts!

Overall, the Sweet Gum Ball Tree has much to offer. A Bag-A-Nut Sweet Gum Ball machine would easily pick up those pesky Sweet Gum Balls so you can utilize all these amazing benefits!


The potentially perilous seed pods of a Sweet Gum tree

On April 17th, 2017 we learned about

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

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