Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Sweetgum Trees: Learning to Love Them

My plan has always been someday to cut down that Liquidambar styraciflua in the front yard. Maybe I will eventually, but for now my tree removal budget has been zeroed out by the elimination of numerous dead and fallen Pinus virginiana. So, prolific sweetgum, you are safe for now; however, I am not free of the frustration caused by your incredibly messy gumballs.

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If you are not familiar with these gumballs, here is a sample of its fruit – a true litter problem in lawn areas. Imagine all the seeds inside.

Since this sweetgum was in the yard before I moved in this house twenty years ago, I would be a better human being by getting to know it instead of plotting against it. Here is what I know, have read, or heard from my Master Naturalist mentors at Hatcher Garden and Woodland Preserve, where I volunteer as a children’s nature guide.
  • Seeds of the gum pod are eaten by birds.
  • The pods burn with a blue flame and make great fire starters for your fireplace.
  • The sweetgum’s scientific name is Liquidambar styraciflua, "liquid amber." 
  • Native Americans chewed hardened resin from the bark – their chewing gum.
  • They would also carve out the trunk to make their canoes.
  • Native Americans and early settlers used a sweetgum bark salve to clean wounds.
  • They used the salve for skin conditions, hemorrhoids, ringworm, and frostbite. 
  • They also made various teas and medicines to treat dysentery and diarrhea from the bark and roots of sweetgum. 
  • They took it internally for sore throats, coughs, and colds.
  • Cultivated in North America since the 1680s, the wood of the sweetgum is second only to oak in being used for furniture, wooden boxes, musical instruments, and flooring.

Yes, sweetgum, you have great history and purpose. I should learn to manage our coexistence without hurting my feet or rolling my ankle again on those pods. Research begins! What I found was most frustrating for many pages into search engine results:

"Just pick them up. There is no better way." 
(Come on now, people are smarter than that and have figured this out.) 

"Push this for $495." (Ha! I am smarter than that.) 

Push Sweetgum Harvester

"Pull this."(No way am I going to buy a pull-behind sweeper that starts at $695...and a riding lawn mower to pull it.)

Pull-Behind Sweetgum Harvester

"Buy a lawn vacuum." (There are reverse blowers from $105 to push ones at $780 to pull-behind for up to $1700 =  YIKES! I could have paid to cut the tree down my now.)

Various Options Here

"Buy the Nut Wizard." (Okay, this is in my price range and is very clever. I could do this for $49.50! Later I could purchase one to pick up my baseballs, tennis balls, golf balls, toys, and shotgun hulls.)

When my magic tool arrived,  I was fine with picking up those thousands of sweetgum balls. Actually other people wanted to help - even the UPS man. I suggested to my very best helper, my three-year-old grandson, that we were going to play pick-up. For one hour we worked with great joy. And what did I learn from him?

“The sky is very noisy.” (i.e., birds singing, geese honking overhead, insects chirping, the wind blowing, airplanes flying above)

“Working in the yard is awesome!” (Yes, sweetheart, I feel the same way.)

"I can see the moon and the sun in the sky." (Yes, life has great synchronicity.)

“This is the day that the Lord has made.” (His singing voice and heart are so sweet.)

I have discovered that others pick up sweetgum balls and make various crafty items. (I am guilty of making some nice wreaths decades ago.) Some people surround their gardens with gumballs to keep rabbits out because the prickly gumballs hurt their feet. There must be a demand because I have found them for sale online: $3 for a package of 5 seed pods. Here is an even better deal at $10.00 for a package of 24 seedpods.

Many hours (and days) later, I am still working on my third XXL wheelbarrow piled high with them. At those prices online, I can make enough money to pay to have that tree cut down.

But is there justice in selling the fruit and seed to pay to kill the parent tree?

I will tell you when I am seventy-years-old and trying this alone. Yet, I can hope that my then twelve-year-old grandson will still think, “Working in the yard is awesome!”