The majestic Sweetgum is a gorgeous deciduous tree that suffers from some bad press in our neighborhood: “They are such trashy trees!” “Those Sweetgum pods really hurt when you step on them!” “And the pollen balls are all over the place!” Some people call the Sweetgum ‘the sand spur of the tree world.’ Although these comments are all true, the crowning blow was the power of the Sweetgum roots below ground. They had shoved the cement and brick containing wall to a severe angle, so that the wall looked like the leaning tower of Pisa.
Still we love the tree for it wonderful shade, beautiful leaves, fall colors, and general airiness most of the year.
Liquidambar styraciflua, also known at the American Sweetgum, is native to warm temperate areas of the Eastern US and tropical areas of Mexico and Central America. It is one of the main valuable forest trees that flourishes in the Southeastern US. It is easily recognizable by its five-point star-shaped leaves and its hard, spiked fruit. The name, Liquidambar was given to the tree by Linnaeus in 1753 to describe the fluid like amber, which was an allusion to the fragrant terebinthine gum which exudes from the tree. The reference to styraciflua comes from the word styrax, which means “flowing from a resin” which are commonly found in various tropical trees.
I have not seen the flowing sap of amber, but there is a distinctive, sweet aroma around the Sweetgum, which may be another reason the name has stuck all of these years.
Spiked Fruit Seedpods
People complain that the seedpods are not seasonal, but continual. There is one Portland skateboard enthusiast, called Two Fall Phil, who insists that Sweetgum seedpods are the scourge of the skateboard community. “Those pods have caused more wrecks than any hazard on the street…they fit perfectly between the wheels and stop the skateboard dead in its tracks, sending the skateboarder flying.”
Some Sweetgum trees may have a full set of hard brown seedpods ready to fall on yards or into lawns. And the seedpods are hard on bare feet, for sure, but they are a small nuisance to pay for the residual beauty the tree provides. Those Sweetgum pods pale in comparison to husks of the gnarly American Chestnut, or the huge Mock Orange, if we were looking for tree fruit superlatives.
Mock Orange fruit
 Grimm, William (1967). Familiar Trees of America. New York: Harper & Row. pp. 153–154.