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.
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:
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.