Sweet Gum trees look innocent, innocuous even, with long, straight trunks that don’t bend and sway like a supple willow.

The branches of a sweet gum aren’t terribly lengthy or thick. The shapely leaves resemble a maple. With the amount of shade they share, you’re apt to think, what a lovely tree. 

You’ve been fooled! Dastardly buggers they be.

Burt Illustrating sweet gum pods

Burt illustrates the size of a Sweet Gum seed pod.

Rain, rain, and let’s have some more rain

Last spring and summer, Pittsburgh was inundated with rain. We wound up the year with a record number of inches, which was not a surprise. There were only a few highly appreciated sunny days during those hot months. The infamous Monongahela Wharf was closed to parking from sometime in March off and on throughout August. With each attempt to reopen it, the river would climb the barriers again. 

My optimistic heart reasoned that since last year was so soggy, this year wouldn’t be. My hopes for a balance between needed rain and craved-for sunshine is, once again, a fantasy.

With my fanciful notion crushed, I took to venting my frustration on the soggy yard. Weeding is a stress reliever and at the end of a day if I’m dirty and the weeds are gone, I consider my work a success. I had big plans for the long, steep hillside behind the house. This area had been horribly neglected and overrun with grass and weeds and a few unruly shrubs. I began salvaging it and as the bad plants were removed, I discovered sweet peas, Queen Anne’s Lace, creeping myrtle, and a few other delights. But with the inundation of moisture, the weeds and grass are consuming the flowers and the crown vetch is asserting control.

Then there’s the front yard.

There are three sweet gum trees in front of our home. Trees I never came across until moving to Pittsburgh. Before I joined him, my husband used landscapers, so did not experience the joy of dealing with sweet gum tree “fruit.” Then I succumbed to mowing-withdrawal and asked for a mower to happily assume the chore. Alas, I discovered that first I had to win a battle.

The yard was covered with a round, but sort of more octagonal, spiny like a cactus, inch-in-diameter seed pods industriously tethered to the grass like velcro. As when I used to dust with the drapery brush, I efficiently undertook to simply mow them away, but they clunked around the blades like small rocks and shot right back into the grass. I attempted the leaf rake, but they resisted the thin, spindly tines and stayed put. The grass rake was an option quickly ventured and discarded as I yanked up bits of good grass along with the occasional pod. I patted the clumps back in place hoping Alex wouldn’t notice.

Gloves are a necessity as is the ability to resist cursing when you accidentally kneel on one while collecting 24 gallons of the blasted dagger-like pods. Much later we discovered there is actually a tool for this chore—an aptly named Nut Gatherer.

Later that same day…

During a call with my cousin, I complained about the afternoon’s frustrating and tedious work picking up the prickly fruit. Later that evening, she walked by an elderly neighbor who was gathering the very pods from her yard. The woman explained that she spray paints them to make decorations. Intrigued, I stashed a couple dozen. Alex didn’t see the pointy things until Christmastime when I hit them with red and green Rust-Oleum, stuffed them into clear vases, and added sprigs of pine or dried hydrangea blooms. Not bad for a totally non-artistic person like me.

spray painted sweet gum pods

Dressed up Christmas swan

That trickster Mother Nature

As usual, when I come across the unusual in nature, I think to myself: what the heck was God thinking when he created a sweet gum pod—excuse me—fruit? They aren’t pretty—even when they’re newly grown and lime green—let alone after a long winter of drying up and turning brown. There is a bit of intrigue, though, to the complex pod that has capsule areas containing two tiny black seeds. Imagine the work they have to do to populate the ground and make more trees.

Learning from a seed

When I was finished that first obstructed round of mowing, I gathered up a dozen of the fruit and really studied the landscape of their design. A smile crossed my face as I compared the pod to myself—I am sometimes hard and sharply barbed on the outside and resistant to being moved to grow. Sometimes I hold back on letting out the tiny seeds inside me that only grow into things worthwhile if I share them with the world.

God had a pretty good idea after all. The sweet gum pods are designed to burst open and let their seeds out when they sense the perfect season for germination. 

I guess He made me a bit like that.

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