While it is true that most people do not refer to sweetgum balls as fruits, that IS what they are–the tree’s fruit. And sweetgum trees are not the only messy fruits. There are a variety of plants with messy fruits or seeds. Silver & Amur maple trees produce loads of samaras every year; ornamental pears have small, annoying, marble-sized fruits; cottonwood trees send down a blanket of cotton. These and others can make having trees in your yard a problem. What to do?
When in comes to adding new trees to your yard and garden, selection is the most important aspect. If you do not want the hassle of messy fruits there is a plethora of options available without messy fruits. Sugar or shantung maple instead of silver or amur, serviceberry or fruitless crabapple instead of flowering pear, and male or seedless cottonwood selections.
For those of you who have mature specimens of trees with messy fruits, my heart goes out to you. For most, there is little you can do short of cutting down the trees. And indeed, this is an option. I once worked with a company who had 6 sweetgum trees that were so messy that they chopped all down and replaced them with maples.
There has been some work on tree injections over the years with a chemical that aborts the fruit, but trials have had no greater affect that 65% fruit drop. Not a significant enough impact on these fruits. For most of us, we will just have to live with it. As far as I am concerned, the benefits of the old trees far outweighs the negatives. My cottonwoods are wonderful shade trees, and provide food to insects and birds. My sweetgums have unbeatable fall colors and nice shade. My silver maples are also great shade trees. Anything worth having, has some trouble along with it.