Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Mention the word "sweetgum" near a person who encounters this tree on a regular basis, and I bet they'll tell you how much they hate the fruit from this tree, often referred to as "*&%$# gumballs!"
We get plenty of calls from homeowners that are fed up with the nonstop stream of gumballs falling from their sweetgum. "Is there any way to stop the tree from making the gumballs?" is usually their question. The answer is yes, but it's not that easy.
Chemicals are available that will cause the tree to abort fruit production so no gumballs develop. There are several drawbacks though.
Treating a sweetgum to prevent fruit formation is very expensive, and must be done annually. A full-size tree usually costs around $200 to treat. Plus, there is only a narrow window of opportunity to prevent gumball development–about one week. If you miss the window, gumballs will develop, even though you just spent $200 to spray. Determining the proper time can be difficult for a homeowner.
Also, most homeowners would have a difficult time applying spray to a large tree. There is also a risk that the sprays used could affect other landscape plants, eliminating desirable fruits.
If it weren't for the gumballs, most would consider the sweetgum a desirable tree. Luckily, there is a variety named 'Rotundiloba' that produces no fruit. It also maintains all the desirable characteristics of the American sweetgum, such as pyramidal shape and gorgeous fall color. The only difference is in leaf shape, with 'Rotundiloba' having rounded lobes on each leaf rather than pointed (as its name suggests).
People have found creative ways to use sweetgum balls–there seem to be infinite craft uses for them. Some surround their gardens with gumballs to keep rabbits and other critters out, since the prickly gumballs hurt their feet. They also burn with a blue flame and make great fire starters for your fireplace.