Bluffton Packet

Sweetgum balls can be annoying, useful. They can also make one Lowcountry dog very happy

The branches of Jean Tanner’s sweetgum tree.
The branches of Jean Tanner’s sweetgum tree. Submitted photo

The sweetgum trees in our back yard had a boon fruit-bearing year in 2018, covering the ground with tons of their spikey balls.

The balls are a favorite past time of our young Yorkillion pup, Sport, who likes running after them until he has a mouth full.

There are, however, multiple other uses for this alien-looking fruit or seed pod, from using them to make crafts to uses in the garden.

If you have a problem with snails, slugs or rabbits in your garden, placing these pods around the plants will deter varmints who don’t want to tangle with these sticking balls. They also make great drainage as fillers in the bottom of your favorite potted plants while adding a little mulch over time as they compost.

Fill a pail with the balls in the fall and winter months and use them to make wreaths or other Christmas ornaments with a hot glue gun.

Although some folks find them a nuisance — think turning an ankle or having one shoot out from the lawn mower — these spiny balls are loved by squirrels and finches, who feast on the little winged seeds that escape from openings in each capsule.

I have watched the two sweetgum trees growing side by side in our backyard since building our home and setting up house-keeping in 1957. They were only about 10 feet tall then. But through the years, they have grown to a lofty 80 feet-plus. Their corky-looking, , grayish-brown bark, sometimes called “alligator-wood,” have limbs that now spread out to a 15-20 ft. and provide a foliage of star-shaped leaves.

These dark green leaves with 5-7 points have supplied us with wondrous cool shade, providing the perfect spot for our wooden swing handcrafted by the late Marvin Bell, a Bluffton native. They dazzle us with colors of yellow, red, orange and purple fall foliage right before dropping their leaves.

When the leaves are green during the summer, you have to look real close to spot the verdant green gumballs hanging among the leaves. But come autumn, the leaves turn brown. When the leaves have fallen, the baalls let their presence known on barren limbs seen against a clear blue sky like a canvas painting of a medieval mace.

Even though the sweetgum tree provides ample shade, some homeowners view them with disdain. It’s a deciduous tree and provides a prolific harvest of fallen leaves and gumballs that keeps them busy raking the lawn through the winter months.

The sweetgum tree is a hardwood and is important to the timber industry. It’s used for lumber, plywood, pulp fuel, railroad ties, furniture and flooring. Early American pioneers used resin from the trees bark to make chewing gum, while Confederate soldiers used the resin to help treat dysentery.

In Asia and Europe, the resin was useful for incense, perfume and as an ingredient in medicine for diphtheria.

I have decided the odor of the gumball and the taste it provides when chewed is what makes it the perfect ball

But Sport likes to chase after them, spiny or not.

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