Sour on sweet gums? Tree to lose protection

Russell Horres of West Ashley says his sweet gum tree sapling has grown over decades later into a monster pain in his front yard.

Ninety-one-year-old West Ashley resident Russell Horres has had a love-hate relationship with his sweet gum tree.

When it was a tiny sprout, he babied it. But now that it’s a 70-foot-tall monster, it’s become a hazard.

Every fall it drops thousands of spikey “gum balls” in his yard. And during heavy winds, its weaker branches — sometimes 20-footers — come crashing down.

Even the root system has become troublesome, as knobby hard knees pop up through his lawn, foiling the mower.

For two years. Horres has battled to see the sweet gum tree taken off the city’s list of protected “champion” growths so he could take the tree down without facing bureaucracy.

And thanks to his efforts, it’s about to happen.

In a move that will liberate sweet gum-hating property owners, Charleston is poised to remove Liquidambar styraciflua from its listing of growths protected by city ordinance.

It’s also doing so in a hurry. While city planners are in the slow process of revamping the entire tree protection code, the sweet gum is getting fast-tracked off the books.

The primary reason Horres wants the tree to go is the danger factor.

One time, a 20-foot limb fell and blocked the driveway.

“If a car had been parked there it would have been squashed,” said Horres, a former supervisor at the Charleston Naval Shipyard.

Another reason is that his wife, Eula, likes walking in the yard and sometimes has girlfriends over to play bridge inside the Moreland neighborhood home. The tree could be a danger to them, he said, if something fell at the wrong time.

Charleston’s years-old tree protection ordinance lists trees under a four-point classification. At the top are oaks and other scenic native beauties, while more common growths, like the sweet gum, are toward the bottom.

The hurdle for Horres, though, is that older growths of almost all types with a 24-inch or greater diameter need zoning approval from the city to take down. The process starts with a $150 fee and requires various public hearings. Horres didn’t want to go that route, so he enlisted the help of City Councilman Billy Moody, who agreed the sweet gum is a “junk” tree and got the ball rolling.

Experts say there is little to love about the sweet gum other than the shade it provides in urban and suburban settings.

“As a species, the sweet gum is not that important,” said Clemson University forestry professor Dr. Vic Shelburne. “They are a dime a dozen in South Carolina.”

The process to remove the tree’s protective listing should take a few more weeks. But in the meantime, Horres is making plans to take the tree down and replace it with something more manageable: a crape myrtle.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.