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Only a few types of trees have spherical, prickly seed pods. And each one has distinctive features to help you tell them apart.

By Jenny Krane
Updated September 28, 2020
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You don't have to be a trained arborist to notice that certain trees have unique traits that can help you identify them. Spiky, round seed pods are one giveaway when you're trying to figure out which types of established trees you have in your yard or that you come across in a park. These distinctive fruits can help narrow down the plant you're curious about, because there are only a handful that make these spherical, prickly pods. While they can make it painful to walk around the yard barefoot, the good news is that the pods are only around at certain times of the year. Here's a look at which plants could be producing spiked, round balls that almost look like something from another planet.

person gathering dry spiked seed pods on the ground
Credit: Jay Wilde

Trees With Spiked Seed Pods

If you've encountered some round, spiny balls under a tree or maybe still on the plant, and you're wondering what it could be, it's likely one of several options: buckeye/horsechestnut (Aesculus), chestnut (Castanea), or sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua). All are common landscape trees and produce spiny pods around their seeds. The spines help protect the seeds from being eaten by critters like birds and squirrels. Here's what each of the pods look like.

yellow spiked seed pods growing on branches with leaves
Credit: Denny Schrock

Buckeye

Ohio buckeye (Aesculus glabra) is usually a small to medium-size tree (20-40 feet tall) with compound leaves that have 5 oval-shape leaflets. Closely related common horsechestnut (A. hippocastanum) is 50-75 feet tall and usually has 7 leaflets rather than 5. Ohio buckeye turns orange-red to reddish brown in fall; horsechestnuts turn yellow or brown. Both bear showy flowers in spring, which are followed by prickly or spiny capsules that split open in fall to release 1 or 2 nuts inside. Unlike actual chestnuts, the nuts of Aesculus species are poisonous to people if eaten.

green spiked seed pods on branch with leaves
Credit: Ed Gohlich

Chestnut

American chestnut (Castanea dentata) used to be one of the most widespread native trees in North America, but a fungus blight wiped out most of them. Chinese chestnut (C. mollissima) or hybrids between the two species are more likely to be found nowadays. The leaves are oval-shape with serrated edges. Fall color is yellow or bronze. The greenish fruits appear in early summer and remain on the tree until fall. The burs split open when ripe, revealing 1 to 4 edible nuts inside.

green and brown tipped spiked seed pod from on branch
Credit: Dean Schoeppner

Sweet Gum

Sweet gum is a native shade tree that has glossy green leaves with five lobes, similar to a sugar maple. Fall color can be quite dramatic, with a combination of yellows, reds, and purples. The tree produces spiny green fruits about the size of a golf ball, which turn brown and drop off the tree over an extended period beginning in fall and continuing over the winter. The spiny fruit may be used in craft projects or as mulch to deter rabbits in the garden. If you've stepped on one barefoot, you know how uncomfortable it can be, plus they can make it difficult to mow when they are all over a lawn.

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