The prickly seed pod of the Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) may be the Lego of the forest – you find them with your feet. The seed capsules are covered in curved horns that open as seeds mature and drop. Native to the southeast, Sweetgums thrive in zones 5 to 9. They grow fast in moist soil, slower in dry soil. Mature trees reach 75 feet.
The tree itself is a fall beauty. Leaves are five lobed with pointed tips. Autumn leaf color is usually red, but can also have tints of yellow, orange or purple. The rounded crown produces nice shade. The downside is that the roots tend to push up around the tree trunk with age, cracking surrounding driveways and walks. Surface roots can cause walking hazards. The bark of young limbs produces a distinctive corky growth. Crushed leaves and injured bark produce a sweet smell.
The Sweetgum has medicinal, ornamental and commercial uses. Native Americans used the sap to treat wounds, and the bark has astringent characteristics that can be used to treat intestinal upset, should the gardener be stranded away from civilization. The sap has been used to treat everything from chest pain to bedsores. Sweetgum lumber ranges in color from white to pink to red, depending upon its location within the tree. It has a fine grain and takes stain well. The wood can be used for quality items (cabinets) or rougher items (pallets), plywood and veneer.
Those sharp, sticker balls are a fabulous way to convince cats that your containers and flowerbeds are not meant as a feline latrine. When plants are small, surround them with a single layer of the balls. The curves at the end of the seed capsules mean that they hook into easily other and remain in place. Cats find them unpleasant to step on, so will find another place to answer nature’s call. (Before you ask, the answer is NO; they do not deter squirrels.) I usually allow those that fall in the Mary Snoddy garden to remain on the ground through a rain or two, so that any seeds remaining in the pods will sprout and die before I move them into a storage barrel for use in protecting my spring plantings.