Fairy Maces

Fairy Maces

Fairy Maces

Sweet gum or more properly Liquidambar Styraciflua is a common eastern American deciduous tree. Normally, I would pay it no mind, except that at this time of year it becomes most annoying. The problem you see is its fruit, which are called sweet gum balls, or sometimes fairy maces for the pointy spines that dot their globular exterior. In the fall, these fruits are green and fleshy. These balls hang almost unnoticed on their branches all winter long, discharge their seeds sometime in there and then in early spring fall to the ground all dried and desiccated. That’s when they become my problem.

A mature sweet gum tree produces hundreds, if not thousands of these balls and most of them do not fall far from the tree. When they fall on the sidewalk, it can make walking through them seem like stepping on marbles, especially if some late-winter’s frozen precipitation has been added to the mix for extra lubrication. Eventually though, home owners will clean up the mess on their sidewalks. This added chore is just another reason why I will never own a sweet gum tree.

When they fall in the road, car tires generally make quick work of them, reducing them to an innocuous brown pulpy mash, but on less trafficked roads or more particularly on bike paths it is a different story. With no automobiles around to do the work, these balls tend to linger there until my front bicycle wheel comes along. Hitting one imparts a jarring wobble to the wheel that then reverberates through the handlebars and requires a strong two-handed grip in order to maintain my steering, lest I lose control and crash. In each of these encounters the sweet gum ball is usually sent skittering towards the gutter, leaving one fewer obstacles on the path. Through spring and into summer one-by-one these little menaces are eventually all dealt with and high summer ushers in a reprieve that is much enjoyed, but come the next fall this cycle begins again. I just wish that these trees weren’t so popular here in Saint Louis.

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