Why I Don’t Use Sweetgum Trees

Every once in a while I’ll look over a drawing from another designer and see sweetgum trees in the plant legend. If they’re near the house or in a commercial setting, I usually recommend a substitution.

Sweetgums (Liquidambar styraciflua) are quick growing shade trees that provide both food and cover for all sorts of animals. I have a big one outside the window of my home office and I have to admit, those big five-pointed leaves do a great job of blocking the summer sun. That’s the only reason I haven’t had it taken down and replaced with a different species of tree. Why do I feel so strongly? Because of these:

My phone* is there for scale. Mature sweetgum trees produce gazillions of these pods, and just to stick it to us silly humans these pods drop long after leaf season ends. I finished raking leaves the first week in December, and it wasn’t until the last week of the year that my yard was carpeted with these things.

Walking across a yard full of these with shoes on is like walking across a field full of spiky ball bearings. If you’re barefoot, they’re like Legos – they will find your foot, and they hurt. The final blow is that sweetgums are pioneer trees, excellent at colonizing fields and speeding the transition from meadow to forest. That’s great in the wild, but what that means in the home landscape is that come spring, your beds will be littered with sweetgum seedlings.

credit: fcps.edu (click to visit source page)

Now anyone who knows me knows that I’m the consummate treehugger, and with a few notable exceptions (poison ivy is a big one) I believe that every plant has its place. If you’re landscaping a large estate property in Fauquier or Loudoun County, this could be a great tree for out in the fields. The critters will love everything about it and the pods won’t bother the field mower at all. But anywhere that people walk, or in a bed with open space – there are better trees. If you need help finding the right tree for your home, give me a call!

*= yes, I’m fully aware that the damage to my phone looks terrible. However, it still works and I’m one of those people who researches his electronics before purchase. I’ll get there, I promise!

Dave Marciniak is a landscape designer and speaker. He lives in Culpeper, Virginia and can be found via his website and on Twitter.

2 comments

  1. cdb says:

    So i have a HUGE one and one smaller gum tree in my backyard. My back neighbor wants me to cut them down b/c the pods get in their pool. They provide a lot of shade now and I don’t have any other trrees in my backyard. What is your opinion of cutting them down and replacing with other trees that are fast growing?
    Thanks for your response.

    • David Marciniak says:

      That’s a tough one. Legally, of course, you can tell your neighbor to go pound sand, but that’s hardly neighborly. We’re facing a similar issue – I want to get rid of the one in our side yard but that side gets full SW exposure and the sweetgum does an awesome job of cooling the house.

      Maybe as an olive branch towards your neighbor you can remove one of the gum trees now and do the other one in 5-8 years, once #1’s replacement has gotten a little bigger?

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