Sweet Gum Tree Uses


The Sweet Gum tree (Liquidambar styraciflua) has many commercial, medicinal, edible and residential uses. In this article I will detail what these uses are, and how they are utilized.

But, for centuries Sweet Gum trees have been used for everything from Chewing gum, lumber, and medicine. Read on to learn the details of these uses of the Sweet Gum tree (with references).

Common uses of Sweet Gum Trees

Ornamental / Landscaping

Sweet Gum trees are commonly used as ornamental trees, and/or landscaping. They are tall with a lovely ovular shape, commonly reaching heights of 70 feet or more. The height and shape make them great shade trees and beautiful additions to landscape.

Sweet Gum Lumber

In the South Eastern United States, Sweet Gum trees are utilized for lumber and furniture making. The lumber from Sweet Gum heartwood has a dark rich color and is often used for speaker boxes and various forms of furniture, cabinetry, or doors [1].

Image credit. Philipp Zinger

Sweet Gum trees have interlocked grain that will result in potentially high amounts of lumber warping during the drying process regardless of saw method. After initial drying, Sweet Gum wood is stable and should not be expected to move much.

Research has shown that the mechanical properties of Sweet Gum meet or exceed the Tulip Tree, Liriodendron tulipifera. [2] So, Sweet Gum lumber could be used in general construction pending the expected loads.

Medicinal

Resin from the sap of Sweet Gum tree is used in the drug Storax. It is said to help clear the lungs/sinuses, have somewhat antiseptic properties, and can be used to treat scabies. [3]

Historically, in parts of Appalachia twigs would be soaked in water or brandy and then utilized to clean the teeth.

Anti-virus properties of the Sweet Gum tree

The flu, or Influenza is caused by a virus. Viruses cannot reproduce on their own, and need to find host cells. They reproduce within a host cell, then utilize a protein to burst the cell, releasing many replicates to infect other cells.

Tamiflu (Oseltamivir) is a drug that is very successful in shortening the duration and severity of the flu. This is because it inhibits the protein that allows the virus to burst from it’s host cell. Tamiflu is distilled from shikimic acid, which is present in the Sweet Gum tree.

Infertile seeds of the Sweet Gum tree contain shikimic acid at 2.4-3.7%. [4] The bark of the Sweetgum tree contains about 1.7 mg/g of shikimic acid.[5] Both of these can be distilled with water. So, the Sweet Gum tree allows us to have a renewable domestic source of the key ingredient of Tamiflu.

Native American Medicinal use of the Sweet Gum tree

The Cherokee utilized the Sweet Gum tree (bark/sap) as a Diaphoretic, Febrifuge, Dermatological treatment and as a general medicine. [6] The Powhatan Indians utilized dried bark mixed with bark of Red Oak to make an infusion used to treat dysentery. [7]

Edibility

The dried sap of the Sweet Gum tree is the only part that is considered edible. From pioneers to modern day children have known how to obtain chewing gum from the Sweet Gum tree.

Use a knife to slice to the cambrian layer of bark, and return in a week to collect the dried sap. This can be used as chewing gum.

Ecological Uses of Sweet Gum Tree

The Sweet Gum tree has high value to all levels of the ecosystem. Small mammals and deer eat young Sweet Gum saplings and foliage. [8] This includes deer, hogs, goats, and rabbits. Birds eat the seeds from the pods, while rodents and squirrels eat seeds that fall to the ground.

Numerous insects feed on the Sweet Gum tree. This includes bark beetles, leaf hoppers and others. Additionally, there are several species of mushroom that grow on the bark.

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References:

[1] – Sutter E.G. (1989) Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua L.). In: Bajaj Y.P.S. (eds) Trees II. Biotechnology in Agriculture and Forestry, vol 5. Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

[2] – Strength and stiffness properties of sweetgum and yellow-poplar structural lumber. T. D. Faust, R. H. McAlister, S. J. Zarnoch.

[3] – A Guide to Medicinal Plants of Appalachia. p162. By Arnold Krochmal, Russell S. Walters, Richard M. Doughty

[4] – Liquidambar styraciflua: a renewable source of shikimic acid. Enrich et al., 2008. Tetrahedron Lett, 49 (2008), pp. 2503-2505

[5] – Martin, E., Duke, J., Pelkki, M. et al. Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua L.): Extraction of Shikimic Acid Coupled to Dilute Acid Pretreatment. Appl Biochem Biotechnol 162, 1660–1668 (2010).

[6] – Hutton, Kimberly, “A Comparative Study of the Plants Used for Medicinal Purposes by the Creek and Seminoles Tribes” (2010). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.

[7] – Traditional Medicinal Plant Use Among Virginia’s Powhatan Indians. Banisteria, Number 35, pages 11-31. 2010 Virginia Natural History Society. Erin E. Morgan, James E. Perry

[8] – A Guide to Medicinal Plants of Appalachia. By Arnold Krochmal, Russell S. Walters, Richard M. Doughty

Joe Foster

Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over six years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!

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