Seed Pods and Eyeballs: Festival of the Trees #45

3/1/2010: The following post is part of Festival of the Trees #45, a blog carnival hosted this week by The Voltage Gate. Visit and enjoy!

I really don’t know trees. Luckily, a friend gave me a New York City tree book for Christmas, and I am starting to use it.

Now I can answer a reader’s recent question about the eyeballs of this fashion-forward snow being.

Sweetgum with identification tag

No, dear reader, the lovely creature’s eyes are not bottle caps, although bottle caps would make starry eyes.

These eyes are hard, spiky seed pods from a Sweetgum tree.

Sometimes called alligator trees for the scaly, reptilian-skin look of their bark, sweetgums (according to my trusty field guide) ooze a “sweet-smelling, balsamic liquid” that has been used for a variety of medicinal purposes and for chewing gum.

Sweetgum seed pods have been falling from the trees since fall. They’re all over the ground beneath the snow, and are still coming down.

It’s true they make fine-looking eyeballs, noses and buttons.

But their purpose, as far as the Sweetgum goes, is not to decorate snow people, but to release tiny seeds to the wind to grow into more Sweetgum trees. Each seed ball, while green and hanging on the tree, holds 40-60 seed capsules, and each capsule holds one or two seeds. When ripe, the seeds disperse, leaving behind holes in the seed pod, which you can make out in the blurry photo below.

Sweetgum pods have a lot of nicknames: gumballs, ankle biters, monkey balls, space bugs, ankle turners, and–my personal favorite–porcupine eggs.

They remind me of mysterious southern nuts and seedpods encountered while out walking the dog in Texas. In a stiff wind, heavy pods showered down around us like hail, while others scuttled after us along the sidewalk like misshapen bugs.

Explore posts in the same categories: February, Flora

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16 Comments on “Seed Pods and Eyeballs: Festival of the Trees #45”

  1. Rivka Says:

    What a strange time machine the Internet can be… here I sit in Florida, in 2019, trying to identify the tree that is shading my new home; and your blog gave me the answer: snowman eyes or porcupine eggs! I have a sweet gum tree. Sweet (:

  2. Elaine Says:

    Praise the Lord!
    I remember the Sweet gum tree so vividly
    growing up because we had several on our property. They grew near the back door and always gave shade to help keep house cool in summer and great area to play. Mom told us that we could chew the milky residue as gum, so,of course my siblings and I set out to do just that by scraping reside off tree with a butter knife. Family also gathered under these trees,for shade and cool breeze, to enjoy afternoon meals with out-of-town-guests, when being indoors was too warm for comfort. We called the ornaments on the tree huckleberris, if spelled correctly.

  3. Sweet Gum is a beautiful tree, but not if you like to walk barefoot under them!

  4. Joy Says:

    I’m just outside McKinney, Texas, about 30 miles north of downtown Dallas. I lived for 2 years in east Dallas, around Lakewood, then we found this place and grabbed it up quick.

  5. Jacqueline Says:

    We have been thinking of planting one of these trees on the nature strip, but everyone we mention it to says “No!” I love these trees & I don’t even mind what people here call a ‘mess.’ Have given up on the idea now & looking for another species to plant. I love all the nicknames for the seed pods. Haven’t heard of any of them.

  6. Joy Says:

    “Porcupine eggs” is what we call an appetizer/finger food made from jalapenos stuffed with sausage.

    Have you ever tasted the “medicinal” sap of these trees?

  7. jasmine Says:

    My dad has similar nicknames for children, especially the ankle biters! They do say we descend from trees don’t they :)

  8. Melissa Says:

    Glad to be of service!

  9. Charlotte Says:

    We have these seed pods up and down our driveway (the gardener from next door blows–you know those nasty gas blowers- them over to our side) from what I thought was a clear elder tree; now i know: a sweet gum. Thanks for the info.

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