The Great Sweetgum Debate

As written by Scott’s “lovely wife”, Chris….

As with all families, many of our discussions revolve around trees. Wait, is that only in our house? Well, if you’re married to a “tree guy” like I am, many discussion do revolve around trees. One recurring conversation is about sweetgum trees. I love them! Yes, I’ve had sweetgum trees in our yard and know of the sweet gum balls. But my gosh, they are beautiful trees.  

First, a bit about sweetgum trees for the uninitiated. They are native to the U.S. and Missouri. They are hardy, low-maintenance trees that currently have no major problems with disease. They are often planted in open areas, and make fantastic shade trees. They have beautiful dark green star shaped leaves. They flower in April-May and often drop little green “broccoli tops”.  If you’ve seen them on the ground, you know what I’m talking about. They are most famous for their fruit which matures in the fall but doesn’t fall until winter or late winter. These seeds are the infamous spike balls that everyone hates. Yes, they are nearly indestructible and yes, they are hard to clean up and yes, they seem to fall over a period of months, so that you never get them all cleaned up.  

Sweetgum showing off its fall colors (even Scott approves). This one has a pretty good log in it, but it will be 80% sapwood.

But here’s why they are so magnificent. They are beautiful trees. They are large and green in the summer and provide wonderful shade, which is much needed in the heat of Missouri’s summers. Then, in the fall, they become amazing trees with the prettiest color changes to red, yellow, orange and even purple. Even Scott thinks they have the widest range of colors in the fall. To me they are the quintessential fall color. It actually pains me not to have one in our current yard, but there are many in our neighborhood, and I can’t wait each year to see them dazzle in the late autumn sun.

Now, if you’re a “tree guy” like Scott, they have no value. I know, how can that be, right? Well, he doesn’t seem fazed by their fall beauty and only focuses on their shortcomings. Obviously, the balls are an eyesore and backsore (get it? from raking and raking and raking). But, he values trees with great wood.  Which, apparently, sweet gums around here don’t have, but according to my internet research, the wood has historically been used for cabinetry. 

So….here’s Scott’s point of view, straight from the horse’s mouth/keyboard:

Sweetgum trees are known for their spike balls.

Why do I hate sweetgum trees and why don’t I mill them? Let me count the ways.

Way #1: Dumb, good-for-nothing spike balls. You can’t eat them, they drop continuously from fall through spring, and they are a pain to walk on. People complain about falling walnuts, but spike balls kick walnuts’ butts.

Way #2: They are messy in the spring too, dropping what we refer to as “broccoli tops”. The broccoli tops are the beginning of the reproductive cycle to make the dumb spike balls previously mentioned. Good-for-nothing broccoli tops, making more good-for-nothing spike balls, which make more good-for-nothing sweetgum trees. Don’t need any of ‘em.

Way #3: Open-grown, sweetgum trees are silly with branches. A long, clear sweetgum log might make 9’, with most of them barely making 7’. They can grow much taller and straighter in the woods, but the yard trees are short and stubby. And, there are almost no sweet gums in the woods around St. Louis, so the available logs are always the short and stubby variety.

Way #4: No customer has ever asked for sweetgum lumber or a beautiful sweetgum dining room table. Well, at least none of my customers have ever asked for sweetgum, so I have little reason to mill it. There are just too many better choices.

Way #5: Wicked crooked lumber. Sweetgum heartwood lumber dries alright (so, I hear), but the sapwood does not. Unfortunately, for the sweetgum trees and local sawyers, the short and stubby, open-grown trees are almost all sapwood, with only a hint of heartwood. This makes for some of the most crooked lumber imaginable. I got my introduction to the twisting of sweetgum, when I milled and dried some 4/4 sweetgum for flooring and all of the boards twisted, with some of them twisting almost 45 degrees. And, those were on the bottom of a stack with wood on them as high as the Bobcat could reach. Boards 6” wide and less, lifted up thousands of pounds. Incredible and noteworthy, but not in a good way.

I say, if a tree doesn’t produce something edible or at least some decent lumber, then we don’t need it. Trim it low and plant something else instead. We can get our firewood from other trees.

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About wunderwoods

Hi! My name is Scott Wunder and I am the owner of WunderWoods Custom Woodworking. We build wine cellars, built-ins and furniture from local woods, here in St. Louis, MO. Recently, I finished a three-year term as the President of the St. Louis Woodworkers Guild, which had me writing a monthly article for our newsletter. I love to write, especially about wood, and found that I still had more to say. Every day I run into something wood related that I realize some of my customers don't know and this seems like a great forum for sharing what I have learned (instead of telling the same story to each person). The main thing to remember is that I try to keep it light and as my wife always reminds people that have just met me, "He is joking."

7 responses to “The Great Sweetgum Debate”

  1. Sacht says :

    The gum balls do make decent fire pit starters. And collecting them can be fare entertainment for toddlers.

  2. Thalia Stein says :

    No one seems to mention the fact that sweetgum trees are giant birdfeeders in late winter. When the pods are ready, the chickadees and other songbirds are all over it. I delight in watching this feast every winter, as I have a large gumball tree in my backkyard, that I have not cut, even though l dislike the gumballs. It is also a great tree for erosion control, as they are so sturdy and put up with all kinds of conditions.

  3. David says :

    I completely agree with you except it is wonderful wood for turning.

  4. Mickey McCann says :

    Scott!! It was nice to see your post! I hope you’re well. I know you don’t love hearing how your jointer is doing but I wanted to let you know it has not moved since the day I plopped it in its current position like 10 years ago. I’ll always be grateful to you for that thing.

    But look… the reason I am writing is that a few years ago I was asked to build a dash section for a guy with an old Bentley and learned something that surprised me. If you do not know about it I think it will surprise you too. I only know that sweet gum is sometimes used as lumber and that everyone who has it in their yard complains about the spikeyballs. But have you heard of “liquid amber”? This is clearly a magical substance that is only available to the super rich. It is obtained by cooking and shaving the wood of the common sweet gum tree in Mississippi. The shavings are as thin as ten sheets of printer paper and have undergone some sort of mystical transfiguration. No longer sweet gum, they now are liquid amber and are appropriate for use in only the finest automobiles.

    Anyhow you can read about it here.

    All you have to do is sell your hideous twisted boards of liquid amber to designers and all your troubles will be over.




  5. Cindy says :

    Great article! Ugh, we have a sweet gum in our front yard. Agree with Chris, they are beautiful but what a mess!!

  6. Larry Gries says :

    I collect the sweet gum balls from my neighbor and use them around the base of my hosta plants to keep the slugs and other insects from climbing up into the plant and destroying them. You can place them around your foundation to keep spiders roaches and such away from your house.

    Sent from my iPhone


  7. Jim Hoeller says :

    I had the good fortune of having a sweetgum tree that had grown in the woods, was about 18″ diameter and the log was about 8’6″ and straight. The tree was dead, next to a road and had to come down to allow a truck with building materials for a new house to pass. I was offered the tree and a neighbor took it over to a sawmill in exchange for some of the wood. It was cut live edge, four quarter with the exception of the middle which was cut into 4″ wide strips and a 4 X 4 cant. The wood was flat and straight when I picked it up and has stayed that way. I am down to the last piece. Jim

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