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Sweetgum wreaths hit the big time

Time is precious, especially leading up to holiday preparation. So what was I doing scrolling through the Martha Stewart Web site in mid-December, looking at gingerbread houses?

Blame it on the turkey. Waiting in the grocery check-out line before November's turkey rush, I flipped through a Martha Stewart Living magazine, lured by a cover-perfect turkey presentation. There, on Page 181, was a spray-painted sweetgum ball wreath.

Some of you may remember when I shared the story about rediscovering my ancient pine cone/nut/sweetgum ball wreath. Dutifully constructed in the early '70s, it had enjoyed various places of honor over the fireplace, followed by places of dishonor, attics and garages. Resurrected when we moved into our new house, after barely escaping a trip to the dump, it is again prominently displayed.

But I never envisioned that the goddess of style would feature a lowly sweetgum ball wreath - elevated, as only Martha can do, to acceptable heights of interior glamour. I was even more astounded to see a source where sweetgum balls could be purchased - you need 125 to make a 14-inch wreath.

You mean someone will pay for sweetgum balls? I see an expanded retirement account on the horizon.

Sweetgums are one of the most common native trees in the eastern half of the United States - and most of them seem to be on our property. They are one of the first trees to appear in cut-over forests and abandoned fields, thanks to seed sown by wind and birds. Did I mention that it sprouts from cut stumps and lateral roots, making it capable of producing a grove of sweetgums? This is one insistent tree.

Those decorator-friendly balls are fruits produced from fertilized blooms that appear in April. These same blooms provide nectar for early hummingbirds scouting for nesting areas - a silver lining to the cloud of balls that will come later. Once fertilized, the flowers morph into bright green prickly balls. In the fall, as the seeds inside ripen, the fruit turns brown and little "windows" on the balls open so the tiny seeds can escape.

Small birds like titmice and chickadees rely on those seeds during the winter, and because each "window" on the prickly balls contains two seeds, the supply is generous. But when the balls start dropping, saunter forth at your own risk; once the balls are underfoot, you may be slip-sliding away.

The name sweetgum comes from its sweet, gummy resin, or sap, once used in ancient medicinal applications. According to "Native Trees of the Southeast" (Timber Press, 2007), the sap also was used as a "poor substitute for chewing gum." Another common name, Alligatorwood, refers to the corky extensions that appear on twigs and the occasional corky spikes that appear on the trunks of young trees.

Sweetgums make an excellent shade tree for large areas and provide food and shelter for a range of animals from bunnies to beavers. Its star-shaped, glossy green foliage, a host plant for luna moths during the warm months, bursts into meteors of maroon, scarlet or yellow in the fall. The leaves often persist into winter so as the holiday season arrives, trees are still graced with a few bold stars.

Sweetgums grow into sizable trees - 75 feet in optimal growing conditions of sunny moist soils - and early growth is rapid. The good news is that trees must be 20 to 30 years old before they bear fruit - so you have time to move away.

Even better news: If you want the beauty of the foliage and tenacity of the tree without the nuisance of the balls, look for the cultivar, 'Rotundiloba.' Its star-shaped leaves have rounded tips, and it sets no fruit.

As for my venture into Martha Stewart land, tune in next year as I traverse the prickly field of gingerbread house creation a la Martha. The only decorator gum balls I'll need then will be from the candy store.

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