What Are Those Things? (Prickly Pods)

The weather’s getting nicer, and I’ve been working on losing weight, so my whole family has been getting out and walking more and more. Recently, because it was a lovely warm day, I walked to my son’s preschool to pick him up. We both enjoy it as a way to spend time together, and he loves it because I’m rarely in a hurry to get home. So we explore and talk and have fun.

On the day in question, he stops and picks something up. “Daddy?” he asks, holding that something out. “What is this?”

I scratch my head, staring at a sort of prickly pod that I’ve seen for years and never really thought about. I mean, I’ve thrown them. And I’ve played with them, and stepped on them barefoot. But I don’t really know what they are.

“I think they’re a seed pod,” I answer, hazarding a reasonable sort of guess.

“Can I take it home?” he asks, because he’s curious and five and his room would be full of rocks and sticks if we let him.

“Sure,” I agree, because I don’t see any harm in it. “But only two.”

“Three?” he immediately counters.


So what are those things?

It turns out it is the seed pod of the American Sweet Gum tree, Liquidambar styraciflua.  The sweet gum tree is a deciduous tree native to the Americas, with a range covering the eastern and southern United States and down into Mexico.  It has star-shaped five-pointed leaves, and grey bark, and can grow to be up to 120 feet tall.  The seed pods are technically fruit, as (biologically speaking) fruit is “an organ that contains seeds, protecting these as they develop and often aiding in their dispersal”.  It is composed of 40 to 60 capsules, each containing one or two seeds and a fitted with a pair of spikes.

Historically, sweet gum trees were raised for commercial purposes, including a call-back to an earlier post on this blog:

Known in Europe for its medicinal and aromatic qualities, sweetgum has long been valued in the New World. It is documented that in 1519. Montezuma shared xochiocotzoquahuitl (sweetgum) balsam with Cortés. Its genus name, Liquidambar, comes from the Latin liquidus (liquid) and ambar (amber) and refers to the bark’s aromatic resin. Pioneer families used sweetgum as it has been used through the ages: for healing wounds, chewing, incense and perfumery. The resin was used in manufacturing drugs, soaps and adhesives during World War I and World War II.

Also, if you’re a bird watcher, it’s handy to have a sweet gum tree around.  The ruby-throated hummingbird is a frequent visitor during the spring, when the tree is in flower.