Wednesday, January 15, 2014

I Never Knew That! --Sweetgum Balls

You know, the super magical thing about the internet is that it can make you the bearer of almost instant knowledge on just about anything. This comes in handy when you hang out with kids. The 'aha, I never knew!' moments are exhilarating.

For instance, yesterday I finally googled 'tree with spiky balls.' Yeah, I giggled a little inside at the search terms.
However, the search is long overdue; we've taken hundreds of walks in our neighborhood and have run into the same patches of 'spiky balls' countless times. On our typical route, there are 3 trees that bear these weird little balls. I've twisted my ankle on them more than once; when I'm pulling a wagon full of kids, they can make travel difficult; Simon has crashed his bike more than once when his front tire hit one. Despite these nuisances, we always slow down to take a look, and to collect the unusual alien balls--we always end up with pockets full and fists bulging because they really are just amazing things to study.


It wasn't until yesterday, after a walk along the snowy sidewalks when we gathered a few of these funny spiky balls, and Noah said 'What are they called?" that I decided it was time to find out! Incidentally, he has become so fascinated with all the things in our compost, that he added "Can we put these in our special trash to turn them into dirt?" We are always in need of brown stuff (carbon rich things like dead leaves and straw), so I was thinking, hmmm, maybe!

Turns out, they are the seed pods from the sweetgum tree. Green in the spring, they darken as autumn and winter pass, and they fall from the sweetgum by the hundreds. If you look very closely, they are actually a bit scary looking--they appear to be made of a collection of tiny, dark brown bird beaks. Noah is the one who make the beak connection, and once he did, he was too freaked out for awhile to touch his ball again. He got over it. :)

Here is something interesting to pass along: The sweetgum doesn't even start producing the seed pods until they are TWENTY years old! That will widen the eyes of any curious kid!

The spiky seed pods from the sweetgum tree are not only fascinating to look at, they can actually help out in the garden. Who knew?! Go out with a bucket and fill it with seed pods, and in the spring you may just use some:

1. Lay the seed pods around young plants to deter snails and slugs who would rather not tangle with them

2. Put them around plants that you also want to protect from rabbits (press the spikes in the ground a bit so they don't blow away)

3. Use them as mulch (you can't have too much mulch!)

4. Like Noah suggested, you can always throw them in your compost for some much needed brown material. However, they will take a long time to compost

5. Use them in the bottom of planters as the drainage filler instead of stones

6. If you have hard, compacted soil that you are trying to amend, dig deep and place a thick layer of the seed pods down to help aerate and drain--cover back up with soil and other amendments

The pods would also be great for making wreaths or ornaments. They have a natural beauty to them, even if they do look like weird little baby bird beaks.

If you walk by a sweetgum tree like we do almost every day, now you know they can be useful for more than twisting your ankle or causing a bike wreck!

P.S. If you are feeling really motivated, get on ebay and sell some like these folks are! I'm totally kidding. Maybe.


  1. If they are really sturdy..could you spray glue them and sprinkle glitter or spray snow for a Christmas decoration? Tuck them into a wreath or make a wreath out of them. I don't know why my name comes out in numbers but Im Vicki aka Toryg

    1. Hi Vicki! I do think they would make gorgeous little decorations. The kids would love that..I think I will do that next Christmas!


  2. I know this article/blog post is quite old, but I've been using sweet gum balls in the bottom of my plant containers for years to improve drainage while adding extra moist organic matter for roots. They can really help reduce the weight of large planters when growing small tree varieties in containers! Just be sure to check pH of the water draining from the container if your plant starts looking less healthy than usual.

    If you decide to use these to make ornaments, store the dry balls in a sealed bag for a few weeks first to kill any wildlife living inside. Then spray them with an air compressor to remove any debris.


    1. Thank you for the helpful tips, Rocki. I appreciate your comment!

  3. Thank you, now I know what these annoying little creatures are I am constantly tripping over. Ankle rollers.

  4. My daughter used them as table center pieces at her wedding sort of rustic or natural. We used plaster of paris in flowerpot and a 4” styro ball on a small dowel. Plant stick before plaster sets . Cover ball with sticky little devils. Then cover any white showing with your favorite pot pourri . Tie a bow with 1/8” ribbon inthree different colors.we made twenty, they all disappeared!

  5. can my used in Aquarium fish and shrimp tanks,, as well!!

  6. One more “crafty” use. After they have opened, take wooden toothpicks, dip in glue & insert all over. After the glue dries, you can leave them natural or spray with gold paint & sprinkle with sequins & glitter. Beautiful Christmas ornaments & no hanger needed - they just sit in the branches. This is great craft for school age kids with help on the spray painting part. Wish I had a picture to share.