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. American goldfinches dangle from the gumballs to extract the seeds.
The gumballs look spiny but after a harsh winter they don’t hurt — or at least they don’t hurt me. See below(*)
In early spring the seed balls 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 “gumballs” was while participating in the Mt. Davis Christmas Bird Count in Somerset County, Pennsylvania about 15 years ago. At one of our stops during the count we got out of the car at a bottomland near an old farmstead. Parked in what used to be the side yard was an abandoned Volvo station wagon 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,” then left them in an old car. I wonder why.
(photo by Dianne Machesney)
(*) Sweetgum balls can hurt bare feet, but not always. See the comments below for remarks on hurting. See this American Orchard blog post for an experiment in Ohio showing they don’t hurt except with bare feet on pavement. I rarely walk with bare feet so I’m immune 😉