A: You are right. The fruits of the sweetgum (Liquidambar styriflua) can indeed be like little land mines when flung by the mower. The seeds of the tree are enclosed in the capsule which splits open when the seeds are mature. The problem is that the capsule has porcupine-like spines all over and are difficult to pick up. And they seem to keep falling all winter.
Unfortunately there is no way to prevent the tree from forming gumballs. You just have to learn to deal with them. In my own yard I have an out-of-the-way place designated for composting woody or fibrous material that takes a long time to break down. I use a leaf rake to gather them into piles and a flat shovel to scoop them up. Dumped into a long-term compost pile they will decompose eventually.
Sweetgum can be a good landscape or street tree. It can grow to 75 feet, usually has a nice conical shape and has excellent fall color.
Anyone thinking about planting a sweetgum, might consider purchasing the cultivar ‘Rotundiloba’, which is the only known variety that does not form fruit. The leaves have rounded lobes instead of points, but otherwise ‘Rotundiloba’ has the same form and fall color as the fruited varieties.
Written by Glenn Palmer, originally published in the Asheville Citizen Times.