Ever since I was a little girl, living here in the Southern States, I have been surrounded by Sweet Gum Trees. I remember when I was in grade school there was a very large and magnificent Sweet Gum Tree on our playground. It had knarly roots protruding from the ground that I use to sit on like a bench. We often played beneath it and I always wondered how old it was and what it must have looked like there years before the neighborhood even existed. The Witch’s Burrs or Gum Balls of this particular tree were enormous in size, I don’t think I have ever seen another Sweet Gum Tree in my lifetime that has been this size. When the balls would fall off the tree in Autumn , it would be quite difficult to walk under the tree and if you were not careful, you would fall , it was like walking on golf balls.
I was very distressed a few years later when I learned that they had cut the massive tree down to build a parking lot in its place. It’s power and energy lost forever. The neighborhood was never the same after that, it still saddens me that anyone would destroy of a tree of such magnificent size and beauty. Little did I know that 45 years later, I would be remembering that tree and learning such vital information about the significance of Sweet Gum Trees.
Liquidambar translates as “liquid amber”, referring to the sweet resin that can be obtained from the tree.
styraciflua translates as “flowing with styrax” (sweet gum – hence the common name).
Also known as American storax, hazel pine, bilsted, redgum, satin-walnut, star-leaved gum, alligatorwood, or simply sweetgum.
There are four species of sweetgum including Liquidambar orientalis L. (L. orientalis), Liquidambar formosana Hance (L. formosana), Liquidambar styraciflua L. (L. styraciflua), and Liquidambar acalycina (L. acalycina) worldwide. However, only L. styraciflua is native to North America where it has a widespread distribution across the southeastern United States.
The Sweetgum tree is native to the southeastern United States and a member of a genus made up of only six species. The others species of Sweet Gum are found only in Asia.
The first historical reference to the Sweet Gum tree comes from the author and soldier, Don Bernal Diaz del Castillo, who accompanied Cortez in 1519 and was a witness to ceremonies between Cortez and Montezuma, who both partook of a liquid amber extracted from a sweetgum tree. A journal from a conquistador accompanying Cortez recorded observing the Aztec emperor himself enjoying a resinous stick from the tree. The Spaniard recognized its similarity to the well-known Asian species (and close kin) that exuded the same resin. Spanish explorers of the American South also noted the resemblance and recorded the tree as they trudged through southern swamps. The first formal appearance of the tree in botanical literature was in the first Spanish-language Mexican herbal in the late 16th Century.
Sweetgum is known as Liquidambar styraciflua to botanists. The genus name refers to the viscous resin, literally liquid amber- liquidus and ambar. The species name translates as flowing with gum (styrax or storax). The genus Liquidambar has four species worldwide. Two close relatives of our North American sweetgum are Formosan sweetgum (Liquidambar formosana) of southern China and Taiwan, and Oriental sweetgum (Liquidambar orientalis) of Turkey and the Caucasus. The former species is an uncommon ornamental in the U.S. The latter is the storax tree, the “Balm of Gilead”, a medicinal perfume and salve important in the Middle East and mentioned in the Bible.
In parts of the deep South it is called alligator wood, gum tree, or incense tree. In the European timber markets it is known for some unknown reason as satin walnut.
In traditional North American Indian medicine, the resin and inner bark were used to treat diarrhea, and, topically, as a salve for wounds and skin irritations. Its antiseptic and antibacterial properties are useful in both contexts. Chemical analysis has found astringent tannins and antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory compounds in sweetgum, which make it effective in treating skin and mucosal infections. The leaves also contain many of the medicinally active compounds.
The Cherokee and other tribes used the resin to calm nervousness. For this it was taken as an infusion (tea). The Cherokee and Choctaw also combined the resin with strawberrybush to make a beverage of unknown appeal, and the resin, when hardened and sticky, was chewed as a gum.
The Euroamerican settlers adopted many of the Indian uses for sweetgum, either through observation of native practices or discovered independently. In Appalachia, a concoction of the resin mixed with whiskey was chewed to clean teeth, heal gums and mouth lesions, or to relieve toothache. Applying the balsam to the skin might help with chigger and other insect bites. It may also have been used as an insect-repellent, although other botanical sources were more effective. It fulfilled these roles for soldiers in the Confederate army during the Civil War. South Carolina Civil War surgeon and botanist writes that sweetgum incense was used in Mexico as an “excitant of the mucous system” and antimicrobial for infections of lungs, intestines and urinary tract.
Archeological research of pre-Columbian Aztecs discovered evidence of a large trade of Liquidambar for incense. Ethnobotanical research by the Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Research documents Liquidambar styraciflua, or arbol de estoraque, as one of the sacred sources of copal resin used for incense and burned during religious ceremonies.
The other uses of the American sweetgum include lumber, veneer, and plywood, as well as fuel and pulpwood. The sweetgum, which also provides the material for hardwood, is one of the most important trees for timber in the country.
In Magical and Spiritual circles the spiney seed pods or fruits of the Sweet Gum are known as Witch’s Burrs or witch balls a traditional American Hoodoo magical item. They are considered a powerful protection amulet. Sweetgums are notably absent from magical and herbal tree lore, which derives largely from Europe. The reason? Sweetgums, while quite abundant in North and South America and Asia, died out on the European continent during the Ice Age. The do not thrive well in Northern or cold climate zones. However according to Wikipedia, The species was introduced into Europe in 1681 by John Banister, the missionary collector sent out by Bishop Compton, who planted it in the palace gardens at Fulham in London, England.
There was no mention however as to how well it thrives there.
Sweet Gum Trees are cold hardy to zone 5. They are native to Eastern United States, from Southwestern Connecticut to Florida and are also found in the Mountains of Mexico and Guatemala. Sweet Gum trees prefer deep, moist, bottomland soils and grow best in full sun, although some will thrive in partial shade.
Sweet Gum trees typically grow to be 60 to 80′ tall and 40 to 60′ wide and some can easily exceed 100′ tall depending on their habitat environment.
They tend to be Pyramidal shaped when young, oblong to rounded when mature.
The leaves of the sweetgum alternate and have “maple-like” star shaped leaves. The leaves are 5- to 7- lobed, 4 to 8″ long and wide and margins are serrate. The leaves are dark to medium glossy green and turn bright shades of red, burgandy, purple and sometimes orange or yellow in autumn. They are quite beautiful but not too showy. The leaves also have a camphor odor when crushed.
The American sweetgum is often planted as a street tree in suburban areas, but it also can tend to form thickets within forests. The tree grows best in deep, moist soil (it can only tolerate very moderate drought), with a pH no higher than 7. There are several different popular cultivars of the sweetgum, including “Burgundy” which is better adapted to the American South, “festival” with peach-colored foliage, “Moraine” which is best adapted to cold, and Rotundiloba, which has no fruit production.
Another distinctive feature of the tree is the peculiar appearance of its small branches and twigs. The bark attaches itself to these in plates edgewise instead of laterally, and a piece of the leafless branch with the aid of a little imagination readily takes on a reptilian form; indeed, the tree is sometimes called “alligatorwood”. The bark is a light brown tinged with red and sometimes gray with dark streaks. It is deeply fissured with scaly ridges. The branches carry layers of cork. The branchlets are pithy, many-angled, winged, and at first covered with rusty hairs, finally becoming red brown, gray or dark brown. As an ornamental tree, the species has a drawback—the branches may have ridges or “wings” that cause more surface area, increasing weight of snow and ice accumulation on the tree. However, the wood is heavy and hard with an interlocking grain, but is difficult to season.
The flowers typically appear in March to May and persist into Autumn, sometimes persisting into the Winter. They are typically about 1–1.5 inches (25–38 mm) in diameter and are covered with rusty hairs. The flowers are unisexual and greenish in color.
Fruits or Seed Balls
The seed burrs are typically 1 to 1.5″ spiny balls; they change from green to brown and look like a a vicious mid evil weapon and in fact if you ever get hit in the head by one or step on one in your bare feet, you might come to think of them as Devil Spurs. The seed balls become noticeable in the late summer and fall as they turn from a shade of green to brown. When the seed pods turn brown they will fall from the trees and make a rather bothersome mess on your lawn, hence why they are considered a nuisance tree to those who prefer pristine lawns.
The tree’s gum resin, for which the tree is named, exudes from the bark of the tree when wounded. It has many names, including liquid amber or copalm balsam. It is a kind of native balsam, or resin, resembling turpentine. It may be clear, reddish, or yellow, with a pleasant smell like ambergris. As the resin ages, it solidifies, the form in which it was historically exported in barrels. The resin is produced by stripping, boiling, and pressing the tree’s bark.
Sweet gum trees have very shallow root systems and often times on older, larger trees their root systems will protrude from the top soil. This shallow root system can sometimes be a problem with older trees that grow in areas of the country that experience high winds or flooding problems and I have seen these trees ripped from the ground during tornado season and during storms that contain straight line winds. The roots of a sweetgum tree have also been known to lift sidewalks if planted too closely.
Although sweetgums are prolific and long-lived, they are sensitive to urban sprawl and drought. According to a North Carolina State University study of sweetgums growing in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, foliage is damaged from phytotoxic levels of troposheric ozone.
Sweet gum seeds are eaten by many species of birds, including goldfinch, purple finch, sparrows, mourning doves, wild turkey, northern bobwhite, and wood duck, as well as by squirrels and chipmunks. Sweet gum is also a larval host plant for the beautiful luna moth.
Sweet gum’s sticky sap rapidly seals over bark wounds, drying and forming a protective “scab,” and the flow of the sticky, aromatic stuff can deter burrowing insects and herbivores.
A mulch of sweet gum balls around your favorite plants will keep the snails away.
Medicinal Uses of Sweet Gum
According to Articles from Pharmacognosy Reviews :
“Sweetgum trees are important resources for medicinal and other beneficial compounds. Many of the medicinal properties of sweetgum are derived from the resinous sap that exudes when the outer bark of the tree has been damaged. The sap, known as storax, has been used for centuries to treat common ailments such as skin problems, coughs, and ulcers. More recently, storax has proven to be a strong antimicrobial agent even against multidrug resistant bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. In addition to the sap, the leaves, bark, and seeds of sweet gum also possess beneficial compounds such as shikimic acid, a precursor to the production of oseltamivir phosphate, the active ingredient in Tamiflu®–an antiviral drug effective against several influenza viruses. Other extracts derived from sweet gum trees have shown potential as antioxidants, anti-inflammatory agents, and chemopreventive agents. The compounds found in the extracts derived from sweetgum sap suppress hypertension in mice. Extracts from sweet gum seeds have anticonvulsant effects, which may make them suitable in the treatment of epilepsy. In addition to the potential medicinal uses of sweetgum extracts, the extracts of the sap possess antifungal activity against various phytopathogenic fungi and have been effective treatments for reducing nematodes and the yellow mosquito, Aedes aegypti, populations thus highlighting the potential of these extracts as environment-friendly pesticides and antifungal agents. The list of value-added products derived from sweetgum trees can be increased by continued research of this abundantly occurring tree. “
Extracts derived from sweetgum trees have shown potential as antioxidants, anti-inflammatory agents, and chemo preventive agents as well as anticonvulsant effects, which may make them suitable in the treatment of epilepsy. In addition to the potential medicinal uses of sweetgum extracts, the extracts of the sap possess anti-fungal activity against various phytopathogenic fungi and have been effective treatments for reducing nematodes and the yellow mosquito.
Many of the medicinal properties of sweetgum come from storax as well as essential oils extracted from the leaves. Storax, also referred to as styrax, is produced by damaging the outer bark of sweetgum trees. When the tree is wounded, the inner bark produces a balsam. Boiling the inner bark in water effectively removes the balsam and produces storax. Storax produced from L. orientalis, or Turkish sweetgum, is referred to as Asian storax while storax derived from L. styraciflua is called American storax.
Storax has medicinal uses dating back to the Aztec Empire during the Paleo-Indian Period (ca. 10,000-7000 BC). The ancient Aztecs collected the boiled down, grayish-brown, sticky, opaque liquid and used it as a treatment for skin infections and other ailments.
Native Americans also used storax for medicinal purposes, including controlling coughs and dysentery and treating sores and wounds.
In addition to storax, the sap of the sweetgum tree was burnt as incense or mixed with tobacco leaves as a sedative, as well as used in the making of soaps, cosmetics, fixatives in perfumes, adhesives, and lacquers. Recent references from organic websites have noted that the inner bark of sweetgum, boiled with milk, can relieve diarrhea, and oils from the leaves of sweetgum trees have antimicrobial properties against both bacteria and viruses. There is a ton of information on the medicinal uses, clinical trials and scientific research references that can be found on this site. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4441155/
Two more tidbits: The sap is still used to add flavor to smoking tobacco and is also available at the pharmacy as an ingredient in the “compound tincture of benzoin.”
According to NaturalMedicinalHerbs.net
Medicinal use of Sweet Gum: A resin obtained from the trunk of the tree (see “Uses notes” below) is antiseptic, carminative, diuretic, expectorant, parasiticide, poultice, salve, sedative, stimulant, vulnerary. It is chewed in the treatment of sore throats, coughs, asthma, cystitis, dysentery etc. Externally, it is applied to sores, wounds, piles, ringworm, scabies etc. The resin is an ingredient of “Friar’s Balsam”, a commercial preparation based on Styrax benzoin that is used to treat colds and skin problems. The mildly astringent inner bark is used in the treatment of diarrhea and childhood cholera.
According to Chineseherbshealing.com
“sweet gum balls, also known as Lu Lu Tong, turn out to be also one of amazing Chinese herbs, which is typically used for the treatment of nettle rash, anaphylactic rhinitis, rheumatic arthritis, bruises, missed menstrual periods, and so on. In addition, another ingenious use of gum balls is for a low breast milk supply. That is to say, it can help nursing mother boost the milk supply naturally. Mind you, it tastes rather bitter.”
From April 2005 to October 2006, gynecology and obstetrics, in the 92th Hospital of People’s Liberation Army, used sweet gum ball to treat 44 cases of postpartum breast distension and the curative effect was quite satisfactory.
Other websites I visited, stated in a nutshell that Sweet gum tree medicinal uses when made into a balsam or salve, it is used for skin conditions, hemorrhoids, ringworm scabies and frostbite. Sweetgum salves have a minor antiseptic value, but work well as an anti-inflammatory.
Taken internally, liquid-amber has stimulant and expectorant effects. It is also used internally for sore throats, coughs, colds, asthma, bronchitis, cystitis, vaginal discharge, strokes, and is it indicated to have an effect on some cancers.
How To Use Sweetgum Balls for medicinal purposes.
To tincture sweet gum, simply gather green (unripe) sweet gum balls, cut them up or smash them with a small hammer and place them in a quart jar. Fill to the top with alcohol such as Vodka or Pure Grain Alcohol and let it steep for 6 weeks. Some folks have experimented with just gathering the infertile seeds from opened balls, which is time consuming. Find an instructional recipe here : http://christianhomekeeper.org/sweet-gum-tincture/
Darryl Patton at The Southern Herbalist suggests boiling the green balls and drinking the decoction for its anti viral properties.
The leaves can be used as a poultice to treat stings and insect bites.
As an infused oil (leaves, stems, inner bark) can be used in making salves for mild aches and pains such as sore muscles.
A decoction from the inner bark is traditionally (Cherokee) used to calm the nerves.
According to the USDA plant database (plants.usda.gov),
“The bark was used to make an infusion that was used as a sedative for nervous patients and for patients who were well in the day but sick during the night. The plant was used to treat colic, internal diseases and to “comfort the heart.”
Personally, I am surrounded by Sweet Gum Trees and I am looking forward to working with them medicinally in the near future. I have been very excited to learn about their medicinal properties and how to use them. There is a wealth of research about the medicinal properties but limited video related to how to prepare them, but I did find one very simple video that shows how to make tincture with the green gum balls which I have provided the link to below. I hope you will take the time to appreciate this tree in the future the next time you notice one. If you are interested in working with Sweet Gum but do not have this tree available to you and wish to purchase some, send me a message and I will try to help you out with that. I am currently working on some future plans to set up a shop where some of my local herbs can be purchased, but it is still in the planning stage, however I will work with you privately if I have the resources available to me.
reimersnurseries.com Photo Credit
Moerman DE. Portland, Oregon: Timber Press; 1998. Native American Ethnobotany; p. 927
. Lost Creek Witch.com Sweetgum 2008-2009. [Last cited on 2014 Feb 22]. Available from: http://www.lostcreekwitch.com/98/sweetgum/
Eat the Weeds with Green Deane: Sweet Gum Tree
Foraging Texas: Sweet Gum
The University of Arkansas on Sweet Gum extraction
Henriette’s Herbal Homepage on Liquidambar
Backyard Nature: Sweet Gum
Landscape Plants – Oregon State University
Virginia Tech Non-timber Forest Products Fact Sheet no. 19. 2001. [Last cited on 2008 Nov 10]. Available from: http://www.ntfpinfo.us/docs/other/VirginiaTech2001-SweetgumFactsheet.pdf . [Ref list]
SFA Forestry – Stephen F. Austin State University Photo Credit
florafinder.org Photo Credit
Sweetgum used to treat hypertension