Sweet Gum Trees and Their Spiky Seed Balls

by AngelaJohnson

Sweet gum trees are a wonderful shade tree that grows quite tall, but their spiky seed balls are a nuisance, often causing you to slip or twist your ankle.

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.

Colorful Sweet Gum Leaves in Autumn

Pretty Sweet Gum Leaves in Autumn

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  birds, chipmunks and squirrels like to eat. 

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 container that will keep our 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 will help keep the soil loose and aerated. 


Some gardeners use pine cones to keep dogs and cats from digging in the garden, but sweet gum balls will work, too.  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, it will encounter the balls and won't want to continue digging.  If it finds a new place to dig, repeat the process.  Eventually, it should give up.  "Plant" more gum balls the next season since the old ones will partially decompose and will no longer have sharp spikes.

Sweet Gum Flowers on Tree with Old Spike Ball

Photo by author
Sweet Gum Flowers
Sweet Gum Flowers

Identifying Trees in the United States

There are books about trees in other areas of the U.S. on Amazon
Native Trees of the Southeast: An Identification Guide

The diversity of woody plants in the Southeast is unparalleled in North America. Native Trees of the Southeast is a practical, compact field guide for the identification of the ...

$20.33  $19.93

View on Amazon

Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification, Revised and Updated (Golden Field Guide ...

Smell the bark of the aromatic Sassafras. Wonder at the Lodgepole Pine, whose heat-activated cones reseed forests destroyed by fire. Search for the Sugar Maple, whose foliage bl...

$11.49  $10.0

View on Amazon

Sweet Gum Balls Make a Mess on Sidewalks

Photo by author
Sweet Gum Balls on Sidewalk
Sweet Gum Balls on Sidewalk

Cleaning up Sweet Gum Seed Balls

If you have a sweet gum tree near your house or sidewalk, you'll want to clean up the seed balls to make sure no one slips on them or twists their ankle.  

You can use a close-tined rake to gather them in a pile, then put them in a plastic bag or cardboard box.  Power leaf blowers may work, but may not blow the balls out of tall grass.

Or you may want to try the Nut Wizard to pick them up. There are several sizes. 

The Nut Wizard

Read the questions and answers to this product and you'll see that it is used for sweet gum balls, too. Buyers suggest you also buy the dumper, too.
Nut Wizard

Learn About Nature and Uses for Plants

The Forager's Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants

A practical guide to all aspects of edible wild plants: finding and identifying them, their seasons of harvest, and their methods of collection and preparation. Each plant is di...

$13.39  $8.46
Nature's Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants

A detailed guide to all aspects of using edible wild plants, from identifying and collecting through preparation. Covers 41 plants in-depth and the text is accompanied by multip...

$17.37  $7.94
Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods From Dirt To Plate (The Wild Food Adventure Series, Book 1)

"Wild spinach about 7 feet tall and fully mature. Well-fed wild spinach is well-branched and produces a huge quantity of seeds when mature. The leaves are still edible at this s...

$21.49  $12.28
Updated: 09/20/2015, AngelaJohnson
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AngelaJohnson on 01/15/2016

Sue L - What a great idea! Thanks for sharing.

Sue L on 01/15/2016

When I was in Girl Scout my mom was a leader and we covered balls with parafin put in tuna can lit the balks covered tuna can with large coffee can and cooked our pancakes eggs etc

AngelaJohnson on 09/21/2015

BarbRad - A friend had a pecan tree (hard shell) in her back yard here in Texas. She had a similar tool that looked like the nut wizard but was quite old. It worked like a charm. Nut wizards are a little expensive, but there's nothing to wear out, so you could use it for many years. I've picked up black walnuts in Illinois and Tennessee by hand, but only filling a plastic grocery bag at a time, so that wasn't too bad.

BarbRad on 09/21/2015

Wow! I never thought of using the gumballs for snail control or mulch. I'm hoping I can talk my husband into the nut wizard. It would sure save my back when harvesting walnuts.

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.

AngelaJohnson 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.

AngelaJohnson 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. ????

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