Sweet Gum Tree

by Green Deane

in Medicinal, Miscellaneous

Dried Sweet Gum Fruit

The Sweet Gum tree is the sand spur of the forest. You painfully find them with your feet. The vicious seed pods have impaled many a forager and has done much to ruin the Sweet Gum’s reputation.  Perhaps it is time for some rehabilitation.

The only edible part of the tree is the dried sap which makes a fragrant, bitter chewing gum. Despite its name the gum is not sweet. It’s called Sweet Gum to separate it from a different species altogether, the Black Gum,  Nyssa sylvatica, which is extremely sour and bitter. In comparison the mildly bitter Sweet Gum is definitely sweeter. Dr. Francois Couplan in his book The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America states on page 60 the gum “it has antiseptic qualities.”

Sweet Gum Leaf

That would be the extent of our interest in the Sweet Gum if it were not for influenza. Viruses are little packets of chemicals that can’t reproduce on their own. They have RNA not DNA. So they need something live to reproduce in. Birds, pigs and humans are the preferred hosts. You might be surprised to learn that most strains of the flu start out in birds. It usually jumps from bird to pig and from pigs to people. It can also be found in whales and seals. Sometimes the flu jumps directly from bird to man, resulting in a very strong and often deadly flu. That led to finding special treatments. Among them is Tamiflu.

Crystalization of oseltamivir phosphate, the active ingredient in Tamiflu

Tamiflu, or chemically said, oseltamivir phosphate, is made from the star anise tree, Illicium verum, a native of China. Specifically it is made from the seed pods. The prime ingredient is shikimic acid. (she-KEE-mick) A shortage led folks to look elsewhere for shikimic acid, and they found it: In pine needles, and infertile Sweet Gum seeds. Sweet Gum bark and  leaves have some but the highest concentration is in the infertile seeds. The star anise pod is about 7% shikimic acid, the pine needles 3% and the Sweet Gum 1.7% to 3%.  Interestingly, Sweet Gum tea was an herbal treatment for the flu and the Cherokee made a tea out of the bark.

Sweet Gum Seeds

First, how do you tell infertile sweet gum seeds? Fertile seeds are black with wings on either side, infertile seeds are yellow and wingless. Now, how does shikimic acid work? To reproduce the virus needs to break out of the cells it is in.  A protein makes that possible. Shikimic acid inhibits the protein. The flu doesn’t reproduce which shortening the duration of the infection and thus shortening or lessening the symptoms, which in some cases of the flu is what is deadly. In some flu infections it is your body’s response to the flu that kills you rather than the flu directly. This is why some flus kill the young. They have very strong and immediate immune systems that overwhelm the body while fighting the disease. With some flus older folks have slower immune responses and may have partial immunity from previous infections. As for the exact preparation and dosage, consult an herbalist. It usually involves soaking crushed green Sweet Gum fruits in alcohol to make a red tincture.

Unripe Sweet Gum Fruit

Botanically the Sweet Gum is Liquidambar styraciflua. (lick-wid-AM-bar  sty-rass-ih-FLOO-uh.) Liquidus is Dead Latin for liquid. Ambar is Arabic for amber (the color of the dried sap.) Styrax is Dead Latin for gum, fluxus for flowing. Liquidambar styraciflua: Liquid Amber Gum Flowing. 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.”

Green Deane’s Itemized Plant Profile: Sweet Gum

IDENTIFICATION: Liquidambar styraciflua: A medium-sized to large tree, growing to 65-155 feet (20–35 m) with a trunk up to 6 feet (2 M) in diameter, can live to 400 years.  Leaves alternating, usually have five (but sometimes three or seven) sharply pointed palmate lobes. dark green, glossy turning brilliant orange, red, and purple the autumn. Leaves have substantial amounts of tannin. Fruit, compound, round, 40 to 60 capsules, each with one or two seeds.

TIME OF YEAR: Flowers later spring, fruits in summer, persists in winter.

ENIVORNMENT: Prefers deep, moist bottomland and full sun. Found from southern New England to Florida west to mid-nation.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: Slashed to the cambium, sap will leak out and harden. The resulting gum can be chewed. Unripe fruit can be crushed and soaked in alcohol to make a medicinal tincture. The bark can be used to make a medicinal tea.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Chad Rial July 8, 2017 at 12:13

This tree is an excellent pioneer species and fixes Nitrogen to the soil. Sweet Gum is also used on toxic spill areas as a phytoremediation plant.


Wyatt Bottorff June 15, 2017 at 14:21

Hi Deane, can you recall you sources for the use of the seed pods? My books refer to the “balsamic juices” of the plant, but not which part the juices are taken from? Is this in reference to the pods?


Green Deane June 17, 2017 at 18:14

Not that I know of. It is the infertile seeds in the green fruit that has the crude shikimic acid in them, and some in the bark as well.


Barbara April 5, 2017 at 19:35

We recently had a problem with our septic system. When the D box was examined there were roots all thru the pvc pipes..we dragged several feet from the 3 pipes and the roots covered the D box thoroughly.. We were told the tree was too close to the septic and should be cut down..any other solution besides


Jim Kelly April 27, 2017 at 18:19

Had same problem and used a company that reline the sewer line with out disturbing anything garuntee for 50 years was a two day project


Jim Kelly April 27, 2017 at 23:56

This doesn’t apply to septic my bad


judi February 3, 2017 at 15:45

Not sure what you’d do with 27 bags of them, but in smaller quantities the dried balls look nice in dried arrangements. In Atlanta one year I embedded toothpicks in them and covered a Styrofoam cone with them, lightly sprayed the whole thing with gold paint and stuck tiny colored ornaments between the balls. It made a lovely Christmas decoration.
Ha! I guess I had more spare time in those days.


Chris Chandler January 31, 2017 at 00:33

Did you hurt its feelings? Go back. Tell it that you didn’t mean it. Praise it for all it has done. Be sure to include :

– Seeds for the tiny birds that can work their beaks into those little holes (big birds don’t try)
– Chewing gum for the indians and prolly the pioneers (dried sap)
– Medicine for viral flu…(crushed green fruit)
– Drop dead beautiful Fall colors …and…
–All that beautiful mulch that you ignored ? Say you’re sorry! Maybe next year -lol


Lynn Williams January 28, 2017 at 22:13

Although their ankle breakers to me and tough on my bare feet I was wondering if I could utilize them somehow I now live under another huge sweetgum tree and tiptoeing around


Eileen January 27, 2017 at 12:22

Our large sweet gum tree in Westfield NJ has faithfully dropped gumballs all over the neighborhood for each of the first 23 years we’ve lived here. This year, nothing! Does anyone know what’s going on?


Ary February 27, 2017 at 00:42

I would guess you had a frost at just the right time to freeze the bloom, especially if fruits come back the next year.


Ann December 6, 2016 at 17:14

Why does my tree about every 4-5 years has 0 seed pods , I mean none,, I’ve lived in my house almost 10 years,, and this is the seconded time this has happened…


Terry Imschweiler January 15, 2017 at 17:48

Hi Ann.

I have lived here in my house in Shillington, PA for a little over 8 years now. This is the first year I have noticed no gumballs!! Every Spring I would need to rake up those godforsaken things to the tune of 27-30 large lawn and leaf bags. I am thrilled there will be no raking this year. With that being said, I too, have no explanation as to why there is no fruit on the tree.


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