Feb 20 2011
I couldn’t resist this title even though these are actually sweetgum balls.
Sweetgum trees are a southern species whose natural northern limit barely extends into Pennsylvania. However, they’re a favorite street tree so you’ll find them further north.
Sweetgums (Liquidambar styraciflua) have star-shaped leaves with 5-7 lobes. They’re easy to identify in winter because their woody seed balls dangle from the branches until spring. The balls look spiny but they don’t hurt. (*)
At this time of year the seed balls start to fall off the tree and litter the ground below. If you’re not looking up, that’s how you’ll discover you’re near a sweetgum tree.
My strangest encounter with these “gumballs” was while participating in the Mt. Davis Christmas Bird Count in Somerset County, Pennsylvania about ten years ago. At one of our stops during the count we got out of the car on a bottomland near a creek and an old farmstead. Parked in what used to be the side yard was an abandoned Volvo stationwagon and inside the back of that car were thousands and thousands of sweetgum balls. It was filled to the windowsills.
Someone went to a lot of trouble to collect those “gumballs” and then they left them there. I wonder why.
(photo by Dianne Machesney)
(*) Sweetgum balls are different here in Pittsburgh than they are in their natural range. See the comments!