ACA Blog

Hope Yancey
Apr 13, 2011

Of Sweet Gum Balls and Simplicity

Every problem can’t be solved just by changing how you look at it. That would be an oversimplification of life’s gray areas, out of keeping with the realities of the world in which we must all live. Sometimes, though, choosing to see something a different way brings fresh perspective. There is a resourcefulness, beautiful in its simplicity, in this approach. I gather a lot of inspiration from nature. Take the lighthearted example of the sweet gum ball.

The hundreds of sweet gum balls blanketing our front yard this time of year are the product of the American Sweet Gum, a deciduous hardwood with the scientific name Liquidambar styraciflua.

There’s nothing too sweet about this fruit, however. Many consider it a major annoyance here in the South, where the trees are in plentiful supply. Awkward to feel underfoot, the sharp, spiky brown orbs with stems attached cover otherwise tidy lawns and driveways in these parts and fall into the street to be smashed flat by cars.

Don’t get me wrong. We like our stately, mature trees – so much that we invited a certified master arborist to visit last year to advise us on their care. It’s just that the sweet gum balls, each about an inch across, make such a mess of things.

One year we tried a new tactic, preparing in advance. We spread a section of wildlife netting over a naturalized area beneath tree cover that seems to harbor the most numbers of the balls. We thought this was a clever way to capture the bulk of them, and then we could shake them into the yard waste can. It didn’t work, and we ended up tossing the wadded mesh out with the trash, some of the sweet gum balls still clinging.

Another effort involves my husband’s nonmotorized lawn sweeper contraption he pushes around the grass. The envy of the neighbors for efficiently collecting leaves in the fall, the device doesn’t seem to work as well on the spring sweet gum balls. At least we get our exercise. If you run really fast while pushing it, it picks up some of the balls, but others appear to hit the rolling brushes and ricochet right off. If I listen closely, I think I even hear the troublemakers mocking us as they bounce out of range – they’re a prickly bunch. Or it could just be the sound of the next batch of them dropping
It’s not glamorous, but the best way we’ve found to gather the sweet gum balls is to rake them into piles, which we bag for disposal wearing work gloves. That’s a lot of bending and reaching.

But the worst thing about the sweet gum balls may be the guilt trip they lay on us. Maybe they know what they’re doing, though. Our household prides itself on sustainable practices; I can’t help but feel slightly remorseful about throwing away objects that do, if you study them closely, have a certain beauty and practicality, after all. If I were more like Martha Stewart, I would be busily hot-gluing them to styrofoam wreath forms or something.

I’ve received holiday ornaments made from dried okra, so I think these seed pods could fill a similar purpose with a bit of sprucing up. You could also set them about in bowls or baskets for a rustic décor, indoors or out. I have heard some people even use them as mulch. Their shape is suggestive of dangly earrings, so perhaps some handmade jewelry for the eco-conscious and style-savvy shopper would pose another use.

I’m rapidly arriving at the conclusion that, for something we have such a plethora of, we probably ought to make things easier on ourselves by adjusing our mindset. Like Andy, Barney and Opie had to do with Aunt Bee’s kerosene-tasting homemade pickles in that famous episode of “The Andy Griffith Show,” my husband and I may need to simply learn to love our harvest of sweet gum balls.

I am finding it a little easier to look kindly on them after going online and seeing the money-making potential they hold. Someone on Etsy sells quantities of them for crafting at $5 a pop, earnestly specifying that their sweet gum balls are carefully hand-selected for cleanliness. Now I know how I’m going to make my fortune.

Pass me a pickle and a rake.

Hope Yancey is a counselor and freelance writer living in Charlotte, North Carolina

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