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Lessons from sweetgum balls

2010 February 24

Sweetgum balls are dropping everywhere. Photo by Ken Moore.

By Ken Moore

Like any kid, I’m fascinated with sweetgum balls; it’s good to stay in touch with your inner kid. This is the time of year when most of those dangling seed pods drop from mature sweetgums, Liquidambar styruciflua. You often see kids stooped over observing and touching those curious spiky gum balls wherever they discover them on forest paths and town walkways. Just imagine the wonder of those moments.

Looking closely, I see in each gum ball a nest of baby birds with mouths wide open, waiting for food. In fact, the tiny winged seeds of sweetgum provide food for goldfinches, chickadees, quail and numerous other birds.

Freshly fallen gum balls are beautiful; some even seem polished, in colors varying from copper to burgundy. Each ball, a perfect work of art, would make any handcrafting artist proud.

Walking along Poplar Avenue recently, I noticed a layer of freshly dropped gum balls covering the ground. There were several large sweetgums growing along Tom’s Creek, and they were nestled in a beautiful mulch of gum balls. I remember an article in The Garden, the official publication of England’s Royal Horticultural Society. The writer was praising sweetgum balls as mulch beneath trees and shrubs. The English are ever so practical and resourceful, so mulching with sweetgum balls seems appropriate, if not normal.

In sharp contrast is the chorus of condemnations that those awful sweetgum trees are a menace, with their dropping-gum-balls habit. Folks hate them; or at most, tolerate them. Few folks really value them.

Taking a lesson from nature, it seems so logical to let the gum balls lie where they fall, creating a natural mulch. Think about the natural forest. Each tree drops leaves that become natural mulch, which eventually decomposes to become nutrients for the roots. The wise and resourceful Botanical Garden staff at The Coker Arboretum leave gum balls to serve as mulch beneath that magnificent tree in the central lawn.

Gardening friend Sally Heiney related to me that gum-ball mulch has been the remedy for her “dog-lying-in-the-flower-border” problem. When she began mulching her flower beds with sweetgum balls, the dog stopped lying amongst the flowers. Similarly, I learned from my mother-in-law, Jane King, who maintains plants in pots at Carol Woods, that gum-ball mulch in pots discourages digging and uprooting of pesky squirrels.

So rather than curse the fallen sweetgum balls, enjoy taking a closer look at the architecture and beauty of each one and keep them on site to serve a useful purpose. In fact, consider the flowers and fruit that fall from all our trees as a resource to keep on site and to recycle back to the earth, as is nature’s way.

Eliminate the energy wasted in collecting that fine natural “debris” and moving it curbside to create unnecessary work for town staff.

Sweet gum balls congregate as mulch beneath the big tree in Coker Arboretum. Photo by Ken Moore.

A good friend described the quiet sound of the raining down of sweetgum seed during a woods walk last fall. I’m going walking next fall in hope of capturing that experience myself.

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