There are some plants out there that people either seem to love or hate. Today I want to introduce you to one of these. Sweetgum is one of my favorite trees. Yes, I am well acquainted with the seed balls that are like the forest equivalent of sand spurs, but I have fond memories of pelting my friends with them when I was very young. I also remember being very fond of a series of movies titled “The Land Before Time.” In these movies, a group of young dinosaurs travel together to find the Great Valley. Along the way, you discover that the favorite food of the herbivores of the group is the Tree Star. I’ve always thought that the leaves of the Sweetgum looked an awful lot like those leaves. Even to the point that my husband and I often refer to the Sweetgum as the Tree Star Tree.
Sweetgum, or Liquidambar styraciflua, is a species of tree native to the Southeastern portion of the United States. Its native range extends from Texas eastward to the coast and from as far north as Tennessee down to Central Florida. It’s also found in some of the forests of Mexico and Central America. This beautiful member of the Altingiaceae family is known for its striking fall foliage. It can reach heights of up to 100 ft (about 30.5 meters) and provides shelter and food for quite a wide variety of wildlife. The leaves are alternate, maple-like, and star-shaped. Typically they will have about 5 to 7 lobes and are 4 to 8 inches (10 - 20cm) long and wide with serrated margins. The dark to medium glossy green leaves change to a kaleidoscope of yellow, red, purple tones in the fall and have a camphor-like smell when they are crushed.
One other reason for the hatred this lovely tree gets is that they’re impossible to get rid of. If you cut one down a bunch of suckers will pop up from the roots. If you cut those off, they’ll just re-grow. It’s like the hydra of the tree world. The wood is also terrible for pretty much anything. It’s not particularly strong, but somehow at the same time, it’s next to impossible to split. If you’re using an axe, you can pretty much forget about it. Even if you do succeed, it’s not great firewood. It burns up fast, but not very hot. It also smokes a lot and tends to pop. It’s a marginal timber tree since it tends to warp badly when dried, though somehow it’s one of the most used timber trees in the South. It’s mostly used for applications where looks and workability don’t matter, like railroad ties. And for bushcraft applications, its uses are limited. It’s fine for things like shelter poles where it doesn’t bear much weight or take any impact, but other than that, you’re better off looking elsewhere. Sweetgum is springy to a point but tends to shatter when put under much stress. And when left in the elements, it will quickly split and rot.
Common Names- Sweetgum, Sweet-Gum, American Sweetgum, American Sweet-Gum, White Gum, Styrax, Star-leaved Gum, Red Gum, Opossum Tree, Liquid Storax, Liquidamber, Gum Tree, Copalm, American Storax, Alligator Wood, Satin Walnut
Scientific Name- Liquidambar styraciflua
Edibility- The leaves are edible, but not tasty. The dried sap can be chewed as a bitter gum. Don’t let the common name fool you, it’s not sweet, it’s only considered sweet in comparison to the Tupelo or Sour Gum which it shares a habitat with.
Summary of Actions- Anticoagulant, Anticonvulsant, Antifungal, Antihepatotoxic, Antihypertensive, Anti-inflammatory, Antimicrobial, Antioxidant, Antiseptic, Antispasmodic, Anti-ulcerogenic, Antiviral, Astringent, Carminative, Diuretic, Expectorant, Parasiticide, Stimulant, Sedative, and Vulnerary
Energetics and Flavors- Bitter and Pungent
Parts Used- Balsam (the sap), Bark, Balls, Leaves
Traditional Native American- Traditionally used by several Native American tribes, Sweetgum was used as a decoction made from the inner bark. This decoction is a powerful remedy for coughs, colds, flu, and fevers. It works as a gentle expectorant to help expel mucus, and as an antispasmodic to calm your lungs. Externally, the leaves have been used as a poultice for arthritis and sore joints, and work well as an anti-inflammatory. A salve can even be made by burning the Sweetgum balls down to ash and mixing it with bear grease or lard.
Cough, Cold, & Flu- Sweetgum contains a chemical known as oseltamivir phosphate or shikimic acid. This is the primary active ingredient in Tamiflu which is well-known over the counter medication for cold and flu. Traditionally a decoction made from either the inner bark of the tree or the seeds was sweetened and used as a syrup to help control cough, cold, and flu.
Skin and Wound Care- Herbal baths that include Sweetgum may help to soothe inflamed joints and muscles. It can also help to improve the health of your skin. Sweetgum sap can also be used to help speed the healing of minor wounds and burns, as well as to prevent any infections.
Ringworm & Scabies- A salve made with Sweetgum sap will help to get rid of parasites such as ringworm and scabies. As a bonus, Sweetgum is also antimicrobial so it will help prevent any secondary infections that may result.
Diarrhea & Dysentery- One of the traditional uses for this tree was to help treat diarrhea and dysentery. Simply drink ½ cup of a decoction made from the bark twice a day.
Mucous Membranes- Sweetgum’s anti-inflammatory properties help to soothe mucus membranes. Especially in the case of catarrh, an inflammation of the mucous membranes in one of the airways or cavities of the body, usually with reference to the throat and paranasal sinuses.
Natural Toothbrush- Ever been camping and forgot your toothbrush? Or have you ever been hiking and get something stuck in your teeth? Sweetgum is a great tree for fixing this issue. Take your knife and cut a sweetgum twig no larger than a #2 pencil and 4”-6” long. Sharpen one end of it. That’s your toothpick. Take the other end and carefully score the face of it with your knife. This helps it fuzz out more quickly. Then simply chew on it for a while until the wood fibers start to fuzz out into a brush. Once you’re satisfied with the bristle texture, you can brush your teeth. The technique is a bit different than what you’re used to, you’ve got to go one tooth at a time. But let me tell you, this really works. The sap also has mild antiseptic qualities, which helps eliminate bad breath and leaves your mouth feeling clean and fresh.
Cautions, Contraindications, and Warnings- None known
I only included a basic introduction to this amazing native tree. If you have any questions or comments please leave them below. Follow me on Facebook and Instagram or updates on my adventures in Nature. Find me on YouTube and check out my videos! I also have a few things up on Teespring, check it out! Also, if you like what I do and what to see more, Become a Patron!