Missouri Sweet Gum Tree: Treasured Native or Spiky Nuisance?

1 Jun 19

Spiky Ball Tree in Missouri Sweet Gum Tree

Liquidambar styraciflua, commonly known as the sweet gum tree, is one of the most easily recognizable trees native to Missouri.

These trees and their little spiked balls of fruit (or “gumballs”) have been preventing Missourians from walking outside barefoot for centuries.  

Full Grown Sweet Gum Tree in Missouri

A full-grown sweet gum changing color.

Significance of the Sweet Gum in Missouri

The sweet gum (and its spiky fruits) are a native Missouri tree that, whether you love them or hate them, are a cant-miss facet of our home state.

The “gumball” fruit of sweet gum trees has stirred passionate opinions among natives. If you’ve ever stepped on one with your bare feet, you probably know why. Some Missourians are quick to tell you how much they hate the gumballs — citing their ability to cause pain, clog drains and get in the way of lawn mowing.

Sweet Gum Tree Fruit

Fruit of the sweet gum tree.

Whether you love them or hate them, there is no denying the sweet gum’s significance in our state’s history over the years.

Missourians have long used the sweet gum’s lumber for cabinets, furniture, flooring and other interior uses. The inner bark of the tree also produces a resin that is a common ingredient in various consumer products, including soaps, cosmetics, tobacco, perfumes, and adhesives.

Native Americans have infused the bark of the sweet gum into a medicinal product used to treat diarrhea and dysentery, as well as cuts and sores.

The city of St. James has so many trees lining the streets that to this day it is known as the “sweet gum capital of Missouri.”

Reasons Our Ecosystem Loves Them

Sweet gum gumballs are actually fruits that hold the tree’s seeds. The seeds are encased in the spiky ball to help protect them from being eaten by animals.

Sweet gum seeds are a delight of many, many species that live in our state, including several types of birds (finches, sparrows, doves, wild turkey, etc.), squirrels and chipmunks. Not to mention, the trees also provide a stable home to the beautiful nighttime luna moth.

Luna Moths Love Sweet Gum Trees

Luna moth (Actias luna)

Why Plant a Sweet Gum?

If you can get past the presence of spiky gumballs filling up your yard, these trees can make a beautiful, shady landmark perfect for parks and large areas. Plus, they turn a gorgeous red color each and every fall.

Sweet gum trees bloom from April to May. They make excellent shade trees with sprawling spreads (up to 60ft wide) that can help cool off your yard during hot Missouri summers.

They grow best in full sun and can reach up to 80ft high when fully grown. These low-maintenance trees grow easily in medium-to-average moisture. They are known to be resilient and currently have no major problems with insects or disease.

If you’re thinking about adding a sweet gum to your space, do it where it has plenty of room to develop a large root system. These trees are best in large lawns or near open spaces.

Sweet Gum Colors in the Fall

The fall color of a sweet gum tree.

Plant Your Next Tree with Voss

Whether you want a classic sweet gum, flowering fruit tree, Missouri dogwood or any other native variety, let us do the work! We can help you create the perfect landscape for any vision you have in mind. Contact Voss Land & Tree today to start planning your garden today.