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Sweetgum Tree Has Sweet Offerings

(credit: Phran Novelli)

(credit: Phran Novelli)

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By Phran Novelli

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) - In the fall, this native tree’s foliage is a spectacular rainbow with its star-shaped leaves turning yellow, orange, red and purple. Now in winter, after the birds have feasted on the seeds, you’ll find piles of empty spikey balls that fall from our tall Sweetgum trees.

Its Latin name, Liquidambar styraciflua, is for the tree’s resin used in soaps, glues and other products, while its hardwood is valued for furniture, millwork, plywood and more.

Crafters use the seedballs for decorations, and some gardeners use them as a top mulch to deter slugs who avoid scratchy stuff.

Whether you call them “monkeyballs” or “witch burrs” or whatever, each is a work of art and a wonder of geometry: they’re pretty but pokey, so it’s smart not to plant a Sweetgum near where you go barefoot in summer.

There is a cultivar called ‘Rotundiloba’ with round-tipped leaves that supposed to NOT produce seedballs, but it turns out that might not be true – it takes decades to know for sure, and it isn’t as cold-hardy as the regular species version is. And anyway, without the seedballs, your Sweetgum tree wouldn’t welcome nearly as many finches and other cute critters to your yard.