Nature Nearby: When slipping is a ball

BY FRED SEITZ — This time of year, slipping can be expected during snowy walks. However, even without snow, slipping frequently occurs with the help (or hindrance?) of the abundant and obvious sweetgum tree balls. These spiky, 1-inch diameter fruits of one of the Southeast’s tallest and most common hardwoods are frequent hazards to walkers in Magruder Park, Paint Branch Park and many other area green spaces.

The sweetgum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua) is deciduous, with five-lobed, star-shaped leaves that are bright green in spring, but turn a lovely orange color in the fall. The tree often grows 12 to 24 inches in a single year and usually reaches 50 to 70 feet in height.   

Sweetgum trees first appeared about 12 to 14 million years ago. Our local sweetgum is one of four sweetgum species, while the other three are more commonly found in Asia. American sweetgum flourishes in the lowlands, but not on the Appalachian ridges. Some of our American sweetgum has also been planted in Great Britain and other parts of Europe. While native to the area, the sweetgum tree has been cultivated for both its beauty and shade. Sweetgum is also planted for its lumber, which is used for furniture and indoor paneling.

The seeds inside the infamous spikey balls are a favorite food source for squirrels and chipmunks. Gardeners use the balls to discourage snails, slugs and rabbits. Some use them for mulch, soil amendment and drainage in pots and other containers.

The sweetgum tree’s resin can be tapped or may appear when the tree is injured. Interestingly, there have been numerous medicinal properties ascribed to the resin including anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antioxidant and antifungal. While I do not know if any of these medical uses have been adopted by practitioners, the University of Arkansas is conducting research on these applications. Until the medical uses have been formally included in my own physician’s prescriptions, I will continue to enjoy the beauty of these magnificent trees — and watch my steps when the gum balls fall along the trail.