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Plantidote of the Day 2012-09-11

twig's picture



Sweet gum tree

To tree or not to tree, that is the question. This small (14" high) volunteer sprouted in a container where something else was growing. Eventually, the other thing, whatever it was, got transplanted. Now I need to decide whether or not to plant this tree. Normally, the answer would be an enthusiastic "Hell, yes!" It's a nice tree, colorful, hardy, etc. But there's a dark side....

Liquidambars are famous for the horrible little spiny balls of pain they drop everywhere. There are two of these trees in the front yard, and they're still shedding balls from last fall. Stepping on one of these on the sidewalk is like stepping on a marble -- you'll be on your keister in no time. So there's lots of sweeping and cleaning up with these trees.

Liquidambars are deciduous, too, so there's leaves, lots and lots of leaves. Leaves I can live with. Spiny balls, no.

Otoh, I hate to kill a tree just because it's doing what trees do. And if I plant it in the backyard, the spiny balls will just go in the ivy and stay there.

So let's take a vote -- plant it where it can't do much harm, or trash it and get a better tree. What do you think?


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No votes yet


Submitted by YesMaybe on

The sweetgum leaves I'm used to seeing look different--they don't have a 'roman nose'. I mean, each lobe would get uniformly narrower until the tip, whereas on yours it stays pretty wide or even gets wider until about halfway to the tip and then starts to really get narrower until it gets to the tip. Are the other sweetgums you've seen in your area like this one?

At any rate, I wouldn't feel bad about disposing of it.

BTW, do you still have that picture I sent you of flower clusters that look like purple strawberries? Just a friendly reminder.

Submitted by YesMaybe on

Those are what I'm used to seeing. A google image search does show other sweetgum leaves that look like the ones on your sapling, so it's safe to say it's definitely sweetgum. And given that the ones in the front yard look like the normal ones I've seen before, I'm thinking maybe the leaves' shape change as the tree gets older, rather than these being different cultivars. But of course there's no telling how far the seed travelled to get there, so it can't be ruled out. Of course, it's also possible there are different leaf shapes on each sweetgum tree and I just never noticed.

insanelysane's picture
Submitted by insanelysane on

I don't see many upsides to saving that Liquidamber sapling.
Besides the spiny balls, they have shallow roots that lift concrete and
as far as I can tell, serve no purpose for bird or other animals.

I say you should go and get a tree that has benefits and is beautiful and doesn't drop nasty stuff.

Something birds can find fruitful and perhaps aid the environment in other ways. Maybe something with pretty flowers and fruit for song birds. Crabapple?

twig's picture
Submitted by twig on

has to be replaced, because of those trees. Thanks, insanely -- I completely forgot about that.

Crabapples are beautiful! Do you think it would grow here, though? This is Zone 10, and it looks like crabapples are best up to Zone 8. Is there some leeway?

Submitted by lambert on

.... Northern Catalpa. I didn't plant it because I got excited and overbought. So I dumped the sapling in the garage and forgot about it. Well, it put forth an entire new branch struggling to the light.

Great metaphor and very optimistic!

twig's picture
Submitted by twig on

are so beautiful! Messy, though -- it drops a lot of debris after blooming. Are you going to plant it now?

It's quite amazing, seeing the plants that fight their way through the concrete here -- palm trees growing in the cracks in freeway walls, for example, and native plants sprouting out of rock walls where you think nothing could grow. They're so stubborn -- it's just awesome!