Sweet Gum Trees and Their Spiky Seed Balls

by burntchestnut

Sweet gum trees are a wonderful shade tree that grows quite tall, but their spiky seed balls are a nuisance.

Sweet gum trees are large; growing up to 100 feet tall. Their leaves are shaped like a star and they have tiny, green round flowers. In the fall, the leaves turn orange and red.

Sweet gums don't begin producing seeds until they are at least 20 years old, so if you see a tree with seed balls, you know it's been around a long time.

Sap comes out of cuts in the bark and sap clumps were chewed by Native Americans and pioneers. They would peel off the bark and then scrape off the sap. The sap is supposed to have a sweet flavor that lasts a long time, but I haven't tried it.

Sweet gum wood is used for boats, toys, boxes, baskets, cabinets, fuel, and for fine paper. Trees are often planted along water to help prevent erosion.

Spiky Sweet Gum Tree Balls

sweet gum balls on sidewalkI took this photo of sweet gum balls that had fallen on a sidewalk.

The fruits are spiky green balls that eventually turn brown. The prickly points open to let two winged seeds come out that are spread by the wind.  Each fruit can have up to 50 seeds which are eaten by various birds, chipmunks and squirrels. 

Not everyone likes sweet gum trees because of their seed pods.  The pods don't decay quickly  and can cause you to turn your ankle when you walk on them.  However, the pods are useful for organic gardeners and crafters.


New crops of brown seed pods fall to the ground in early winter.  Older pods from the previous season won't be as spiky since they've been exposed to the weather.

Rake up the sweet gum balls and store them in a plastic bag or bucket away from moisture and rodents. Keep them for the spring planting season and use them around new seedlings.  The spikes on the seed ball will deter slugs and snails.  Sweet gum balls last all summer and are nontoxic.


They're quite pretty and will add interest to your garden. Some gardeners use them to help fill the bottom third of large flower pot containers to save potting soil and to allow better drainage.

If you have an area in your lawn or garden that is mostly clay or rocky, you may want to throw in these seed pods when you cultivate the land.  Because they take so long to decompose, they might help keep the soil loose and aerated. You could always experiment and see if it works.


Some gardeners use pine cones to keep dogs and cats from digging in the garden, but sweet gum balls will work just as well.  You can scatter them around your garden perimeter, not leaving any empty space where they can walk around it and into the garden.

Or you can "plant" them in areas where you've seen animals digging.  Dig a hole or trench about 3 inches deep, fill about 2 inches with sweet gum balls and then add an inch of dirt on top.  When the animal digs again, he'll encounter the balls and he won't want to continue digging.  If it finds a new place to dig, repeat the process.  Eventually, he should give up.

Sweet Gum Flowers on Tree with Old Spike Ball

Photo by Burntchestnut
Sweet Gum Flowers
Sweet Gum Flowers

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Updated: on 10/17/2014, burntchestnut
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


MBC on 10/10/2014

I have seen these ugly sticky balls on the ground. Now I know what they are. The tree is pretty in the fall.

happynutritionist on 10/03/2014

Oh it's fun to see and read about these, they grew along the streets in the development where I grew up and we as kids used to throw them at each other.

burntchestnut on 08/30/2014

You're right about being careful where to plant these trees. My aunt and uncle lived in a small town in central Illinois and many of the homes have sweet gum trees planted near the road where the balls fall on the sidewalk - not a good idea.

Raintree on 08/30/2014

It sounds like those sweet gum balls can be very useful around the garden! Like the idea of using them to fill up the bottom of pots and also for heavy clay soil. However, from what you and others are saying the trees seem better planted away from areas near paths or where lots of people walk regularly.

burntchestnut on 02/23/2014

Maybe he gets fiber from the sweet gum balls. When they get old, the spikes aren't sharp anymore, so I assume they're not hurting him. I've never heard of dogs eating sweet gum balls, but I have heard of them eating acorns.

Janci on 02/22/2014

My dog loves eating these things. I guess they are ok to eat. He has been eating them for a year now. ????

Rheena on 01/17/2014

Or, you can use the spiked balls for Tree Art! www.treeartbyrheena.com

Rose on 09/25/2013

The tip about using the gum balls to deter slugs is a good one.

ologsinquito on 08/30/2013

Very interesting. I used to buy spruce gum when I was little.

marbar44 on 01/30/2013

PS When I moved to NC, there were 4 sweet gum trees (large, mature trees) on my property. They lasted just long enough for me to find someone to cut them down. Unfortunately there are still many in our semi-rural subdivision and walking along the roadside (we have no sidewalks) is a definite hazard when the seeds fall.

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