Out My Backdoor: In Defense of the Sweetgum Tree

Sweetgum ball (Terry W. Johnson)

By Terry W. Johnson

I can remember years ago that I was surprised to hear a man say, "The only good sweetgum is a dead sweetgum." Although I knew that sweetgum had its detractors, until then I hadn’t realized that some folks passionately hated the tree.

Over the years I have often thought about that statement. Finally I decided that it was time for me defend this too often maligned Georgia native. With that in mind, let me share with you the reasons why I like sweetgums.

Obviously, there are many reasons why some homeowners don't. The complaint I hear most often is that the tree is messy. Being a deciduous tree, each autumn it litters our lawns with a quilt of colorful leaves that, in the minds of many, must be raked up.

However, that is just a portion of the mess the tree creates. Even some of the homeowners who can deal with raking leaves don’t like dealing with the thousands of spike-laden fruits the trees also drop on their lawns. The situation is acerbated by the fact that sweetgum balls can make walking in the yard seem like crossing a mine field. If that isn't enough, the spiny fruits have been known to cause people to slip and turn an ankle.

The prickly fruits are called gumballs, goblin balls, monkey balls and a number of other colorful names.

Other folks dislike the tree because it doesn't make good firewood, since it is difficult to split and rots quickly. Likewise, some woodworkers aren’t fond of sweetgum because the wood is difficult to dry straight and unsuitable for carpentry work.

But I’m in the camp that suggests that, while these things may be true, the sweetgum does have many redeeming traits.

To begin with, the sweetgum is actually an important timber tree. Among the hardwoods that blanket Southern forests it is second in production only to the oaks. Sweetgum wood is used to make veneer, plywood, cabinets and furniture.

The gum from these trees has been used as chewing gum and even employed to concoct medicines and salves to cure a variety of ailments, treat wounds and serve as an important ingredient in adhesives.

At one time, the tree's twigs were even used as toothbrushes.

And what would Mother Nature's fall foliage extravaganza be like without the sweetgum? You would be hard pressed to find a tree that displays more beautiful fall foliage. The colors worn by the star-shaped sweetgum leaves seem to originate from the pallet of a master painter. Leaves vary from maroon to vibrant red and from pink to orange and yellow. Ironically, it seems that the sweetgums growing on the poorest soils often put on the best autumn show.

In spring, the sweetgum provides a source of nectar for the ruby-throated hummingbird and other nectar feeders. You also might be surprised to learn that sweetgum is a host plant for more than 30 species of butterflies and moths. This list includes two of our largest and most stunning moths, the luna and promethea.

Although I am an ardent fan of the sweetgum's fall foliage, the thing that I like most about the tree is its odd fruit – a 1- to 1 1/2-inch ball suspended on a slender stalk. Each fruit is actually dozens of fruits that have fused together.

On close inspection, you will see that the gumball's spikes are arranged in pairs. Interestingly, the points of the spikes in each pair point toward one another.

As the balls dry, they turn from green to brown. During the drying process holes appear. If you peer into a recently-opened hole, you will see two winged seeds measuring only a ¼- to a 1/3-inch long. Each gumball will produce from 30-50 seeds. These seeds are dispersed by the wind and by animals.

Gazing at these tiny seeds you might wonder what would eat such seeds. In truth, many birds and other wildlife love 'em. Would you believe the crop taken from a wood duck was found to be packed with more than 1,000 sweetgum seeds? Why, even wild turkeys, mallards, mourning dove and quail dine on these tiny, nutritious morsels.

On numerous occasions I have seen many birds feasting on sweetgum seeds. Among the species I’ve personally seen chowing down on them are red-winged blackbird, Carolina chickadee, dark-eyed junco, Carolina wren, chipping sparrow and northern cardinal. The list of birds that eat sweetgum seeds also includes the likes of the purple finch, eastern towhee, evening grosbeak, pine siskin, yellow-bellied sapsucker, white-throated and white-crowned sparrow.

Sweetgum seeds are also eaten by mammals such as gray squirrels and eastern chipmunks.

However, by far I see American goldfinches eating these seeds the most often. Many times I have watched flocks of American goldfinches descend on sweetgum trees festooned with seed-laden gumballs. Once the birds arrive, the feast is on.

If you are clearing land to build a house and happen upon a sweetgum, I hope that you will think twice before cutting it down. If you enjoy colorful fall foliage, butterflies and moths, and birds, and if you can find a place for the tree in your landscape, do so.

Should you cut down a sweetgum and later decide to plant another, keep in mind that it takes 15-20 years for it to produce its first fruit.

Is the sweetgum a tree for all yards? No. The sheer size of a mature sweetgum (it can reach heights of 100 feet or more) make it unsuitable for most small yards. Are they messy? Yes.

However, if your yard is large enough to accommodate a large tree, the sweetgum might be just what you need. It will provide breathtaking fall color and shade. In addition, the sweetgum can be a valuable member of the diverse plant and animal community found just outside your backdoor.

As for the gumballs, once I realized how valuable they are to my wildlife neighbors, I don't seem to mind them as much as I once did.

Terry W. Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division, a backyard wildlife expert and executive director of The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, friends group of the division’s Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column.) Learn more about TERN, see previous “Out My Backdoor” columns and read Terry’s blog, Backyard Wildlife Connection.