There's a tree in your backyard that produces spiked round balls, and you have no idea what it is. We can help you identify it, and explain the purpose of those odd seed pods it drops.

By Jenny Krane

We're not all trained arborists, so when we're trying to evaluate landscaping it can be hard to know what types of established trees you have. If they're large, they've probably been there for decades and you weren't the one to plant it. Especially when they drop spiky seed pods (don't walk around the yard barefoot—ouch!), it's good to know what you're working with.

Trees With Spiked Seed Pods

This tree could be one of several options: sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), chestnut (Castanea), or buckeye/horsechestnut (Aesculus). All are common landscape trees and produce spiny pods around their seeds. The spines are produced by the tree to help protect the seeds from being eaten by critters like birds and squirrels. So which tree do you have in your yard?

Sweet Gum

Sweet gum has glossy green leaves with five lobes, similar to a sugar maple. Fall color is variable but can be quite dramatic, with a combination of yellows, reds, and purples. It produces spiny brown balls of fruit that drop off the tree over an extended period. The spiny fruit may be used in crafts projects or as mulch to deter rabbits in the garden. If you've stepped on one barefoot, you know how painful it can be!

Chestnut

American chestnut (Castanea dentata) used to be one of the most widespread native trees in North America, but fungus blight wiped out most of them. Chinese chestnut (C. mollissima) or hybrids between the two species are more likely to be found nowadays. Leaves are simple and toothed along the margins. Fruits consist of 1 to 4 nuts enclosed in prickly burs that split open into 2 to 4 valves. Fall color is yellow or bronze.

Buckeye

Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra) is usually a small to medium-size tree (20-40 feet tall) with palmately compound leaves with 5 leaflets. Common horsechestnut (A. hippocastanum) is 50-75 feet tall and usually has 7 leaflets rather than 5. Both bear 1 or 2 nuts in a prickly or spiny capsule that splits open. Ohio buckeye turns orange-red to reddish brown in fall; horsechestnuts turn yellow or brown.

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