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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{ 61 comments… read them below or add one }

1 fred March 2, 2012 at 18:35

Would that mean I could make an antibiotic tincture from pine needles . that would be way easier to find and make for the next flu season.

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2 Green Deane March 2, 2012 at 18:53

I am thinking about doing that but I am not an herbalist so I can’t advice others to do so. I would check with our localal herbalist.

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3 Susan Marynowski August 27, 2012 at 13:45

Even we herbalists can’t legally advise others to make or take tinctures, since we are not a recognized profession in the United States. But we can make recommendations, as long as we don’t “diagnose” or “treat” illness. So certainly this would be one good approach when flu infection has occurred. But I’m a huge fan of prevention, and for that you might want to look into the herbs that help to strengthen the immune system (medicinal mushrooms, Astragalus) and the herbs that help the body to “prepare” to fight viral infections (elderberry). Good luck and good health!

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4 Don March 17, 2012 at 23:37

My Dad keeps calling the one growing in his front yard a Red Maple. I keep telling him that it is a Sweetgum. We discuss what it is atleast once a year and i keep telling him its a Sweetgum. When the leaves come back we will discuss it again.

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5 Dave April 7, 2012 at 23:39

Walk around barefoot; you’ll know if it’s a sweetgum.

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6 mycol August 26, 2012 at 20:19

awesome research Deane! I spent the night with ANdy FIrk whom enlightened me on such knowledge…now the preparation…I’ll see if 7 song or Susan Marynowski have any ideas.

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7 Susan Marynowski August 27, 2012 at 13:50

I was under the impression that the shikimic acid was found in the unripe fruit rather than the infertile seeds, but I could be totally mistaken about that. If I were to make a tincture of this plant, I would collect the unripe fruits or unfertile seeds, whichever one you want to try, chop them up and pack a small jar about halfway with the plant material, and cover with 100 proof (50%) vodka. Higher percent spirits would be even better…we have 153 proof (76.5%) available in Florida, and 180 proof (95%) is available in Georgia and some other states. You could also potentially make a decoction (simmered tea) with the plant parts, but the unripe pods would only be available at a certain time of year. The pods are also difficult to collect unless you find a tree with low-hanging fruit, as it were.

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8 Susan Marynowski August 27, 2012 at 13:51

I should have said *fill the jar* with the vodka. So the jar will have 1/2 packed plant material and be full of vodka. You can shake it if you are inspired to do so. Strain after about 6 weeks or never. :-)

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9 Green Deane August 27, 2012 at 14:03

I think the dificulty of separating the seeds from the unripe pod is why the whole fruit is crushed and packed in.

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10 Leslie Richards September 25, 2013 at 13:41

I harvested green balls, set them on a tray and let them dry. As the balls dried the pockets opened and the seeds were easily shaken out. I then used a mesh strainer to strain the fertile from infertile seeds. I am going to macerate the seeds with young pine tips to make an antiseptic!

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11 karin September 23, 2012 at 20:54

I have recently purchased a house with a cluster of 3 Sweet Gums standing at about 80 feet, I am thinking I may need to have them cut down but unsure about how their root systems are. Trees are very close to foundry fence and neighbors pool and are about 5 meters from my house.
Will the roots become a real problem ?

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12 Green Deane September 23, 2012 at 21:18

yes, the roots can be an issue…. but the green fruit of the sweet gum in an alcohol solution are, depending on dosage, as good as tamiflu to shorten and end the flu.

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13 Carla October 16, 2012 at 20:57

What would be the proper dosage of the solution?

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14 Green Deane October 16, 2012 at 20:58

For that you will need to consult an herbalist.

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15 feralkevin January 10, 2013 at 01:37

I recently saw a huge flock of crows eating something on the sidewalk beneath a row of winter sweet gum trees. I walked closer and saw only the ripe pods and spilled seeds on the sidewalk, so I must assumed they were eating those. Earlier in the late fall, I caught a squirrel eating them from above me as I walked under the tree, depositing crumbs on my sweater. Are there no reports of the seeds being edible for humans?

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16 Green Deane January 10, 2013 at 07:35

I’ve never found any reference to eating sweetgum fruit/seeds et cetera. It does have medicinal uses, however. Green seeds are 3% shikimic acid.

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17 Marie Stoves September 28, 2013 at 14:35

Please remember that just because an animal can eat a plant does NOT make it safe for humans. Always consult several sources eating our using unfamiliar plants.

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18 Jeanette January 11, 2013 at 09:49

I have a tree in our back yard that has “fruit” that falls off looking like small potatoes. My husband’s uncle was visiting one day and said it was a sweet gum tree. But after looking at the picture above, that’s definitely not the “fruit” that falls from the tree. Any thoughts as to what I have?

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19 Green Deane January 13, 2013 at 17:33

Probably a sycamore… then again I should ask where you live as that could be important.

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20 Eileen February 20, 2013 at 14:48

I am not a tree expert by any means. Although I have been trying to find out what my tree is also. Have found a few with spines on the “fruits”, one of which is a Buckeye Tree. If you have anything close to what is above try looking up the Buckeye Tree. Mine tree..yes the Sweet Gum…Spiney’s hurt!

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21 frankie January 18, 2013 at 03:25

a little off topic, but is mid january too late to collect seeds for planting. i am located in southern california in ventura county, the tree in the front yard is still dropping spike balls that are still greenish yellow. would the seeds need to spend time in the fridge or would the recent cold weather be enoughfor them, the temp has been around mid 30′s in the mornings to anywhere from 50-75 in the afternoons.

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22 Green Deane January 18, 2013 at 06:30

Just collect them and leave them outside until you are ready to plant them.

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23 lee February 2, 2013 at 12:33

I love the shade in the summer from the sweet gum tree,but I need to know if there is any thing I can do to stop the fruit from being produced? A home remedy,chain saw? Please help and advise I’m tiered of raking! Thanks.

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24 Shebee April 21, 2013 at 11:01

Actually, there are a few things, but I do not know if they are toxic or not. A product called Florel which is a Growth Regulator, is reported to work well… if you apply it at the right time. NAA (napthalene ascidic acid) products will cause the immature balls to shrivle and fall. It has a longer window of treatment. Then there are injections, and a soil drench. I have researched every way possible to stop my prolific tree from producing spiny balls. I do know know if these are toxic, so please do some research. In the end, I have realized that I have been defeated; therefore, I am always trying to find “creative” to coerce/entice/manipulate others to help me rake them up.

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25 Reagan February 3, 2013 at 03:29

I can’t wait to utilize these trees, or their fruit I should say! We are surrounded by many. Thanks for a great article! As an odd side note, we were hit by an f4/f5 tornado a year and a half ago. We used to live in heavy woods, and now we don’t :( we grieved at the loss of the trees. But the trees that are left, virtually every one still standing in the direct path, is a Sweet Gum. I found this fascinating when I realized.

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26 sheila February 20, 2013 at 21:58

I have a Sweet Gum tree in my back yard and I have wondered if I could recycle the balls in some way? They do not break down very easily. I have so many and when it’s time to rake them up, I normally have a big leaf bag full.
( We had only been living in this house a couple of weeks and had not yet met anyone in our subdivision. I was in the back yard and stepped on some of the gum balls that were hidden in the grass, lost my footing, landing hard on my rump….. I looked up and saw a neighbor smiling….. I only remember how painful it was and the embarrassment. Now every time I step on one I remember that day) :)

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27 Gary April 10, 2013 at 21:52

Sheila,
If you have an outdoor fire pit or cook stove, they burn really well.

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28 Shebee April 21, 2013 at 10:49

The sweet gum trees seem to drop balls all year around. I hated mine, until I learned about its medicinal value. I am going to try a mower with a bag attachment this year. I have seen websites dedicated to finding uses for the horrible spiny balls. Here are few ideas: Craft: Sweet Gum Mini-Wreath, Sweet Gum Balls For Flower Drainage ( put them in bottom of pots), http://www.etsy.com/search?includes=tags&q=sweet+gum+balls . Believe it or not, I even saw someone that wanted to buy sweet gum balls! Perhaps we could market them???
If we could, We could become Rich in a very short time!

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29 ED Speller February 24, 2013 at 14:35

I have a sweet gum tee in my yard and I get a bunch of seed pods every year off of it. I put the seed pods around a shrub and it killed the shrub. Are the seed pods toxic? I would like to add them to my compost pile ? Good idea or bad?

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30 Green Deane February 26, 2013 at 06:25

Toxic? Np. Hard on bare feet? Yes.

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31 MaryClaire Muzzie July 16, 2013 at 22:05

Ed. I read your blog there and what you have could possibly by a black walnut tree and not sweet gum. Black walnuts are also spiny balls, very similar. They are very toxic to other plants. They will kill gardens other trees nearby. We spent many years cleaning these up and burning them. My father-in-law died 3 years ago and we finally got to cut them down. Neighbor finally had a nice garden. I like english walnuts which are sweeter, black walnuts are bitter and not my cup of tea. Nobody wanted them, we asked, so we burned them, year after year. They are nasty.

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32 ken hart April 1, 2014 at 12:17

I have been doing research about the sweet gum and the black walnut.The black walnut was the research paper for my sun . The
tincture of the green husk of the nut,kills virus,mold, bacteria,mildew,
parasites. I make a gallon of the tincture for my church every year.I found that the tincture of the dried sweet gum ball will eliminate gas,and sooth the lower intestine.Any one can email me and get the 20 page report ,or the short version of the black walnut and or both trees fruit tincture. olinhart@gmail.com

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33 Betty McGowan March 11, 2013 at 16:32

My Aunt used the Sweet Gum branch for a toothbrush. Has anyone ever heard of that?

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34 mbg March 19, 2013 at 21:29

Yes. My grandmother would use sweet gum twigs to chew on and brush her teeth. My mother has done that as well. Not tried it myself, as yet.:)

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35 amg April 16, 2013 at 20:06

Are there any plants – flowers, groundcover, etc – that will grow under a sweetgum tree? We have not been able to find any info and are tired of looking at the bare ground under the trees where even expensive grasses won’t grow.

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36 Shebee April 21, 2013 at 10:39

Yes, Hostas and Orange Stone Crop Sedum love it under my Sweet Gum tree. The Sedum is taller than most Hostas, so plant it next to the tree…then ring it with Hostas. If you get a few plants, they will multiply quickly. You can break one plant apart and have several the next year. They root easily. At the edge, I usually put a ring of shade loving annuals, making sure to plant them in a high grade potting soil.
I hope this helps.

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37 linda garr April 19, 2013 at 16:04

can you use the wood for burning in a fireplace??

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38 Joyce E Forager June 17, 2013 at 11:52

When would be the best time for tapping sweet gums for their sap, and what type of equipment would be neccesary? Thanks.

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39 Green Deane July 18, 2013 at 02:50

Well… anythime but the sap thickens so it’s not like maple sap per se, and the flavor is strong.

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40 Karen July 3, 2013 at 06:02

Hi, thanks for all your efforts in identifying these plants for us, so so helpful! My father-in-law, who grew up in east Texas and was very straitlaced, would never even have a glass of wine or beer, used to say that when he was young, he and his friends used to chew the sap from the sweetgum, though he didn’t know why. Later I read that the sap is a mild narcotic and we teased him about it. Is it true that the sap has a narcotic effect? Is that what makes it medicinally useful?

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41 Stephen September 3, 2013 at 11:06

Do you know of any furniture manufacturers that purchase sweet gum trees?

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42 Marian Lozier October 14, 2013 at 13:31

I would like to buy some of fruit off a gum tree.

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43 alessio October 28, 2013 at 08:27

hello

i have some of these trees in my backyard.
when i saw this peculiar spiked balls on the ground i picked them up
and brought them inside as ornaments. (belgium the are rare)
I found out the had a very nice sweet saur odor so i put them under my window as natural flagrant.
later i found out that the spikes bursted open to sread the seads, genious nature!
so i collected all seeds, and i went for research on internet.
i didn’t even knew the exact name so i started with maple fruits and clicked on this picture.

but let’s get to the point,where do i extract the sap from? the fruits, the tree itself or the seeds?
is it poisonous?
2) how can imake a 20% flavour alcohol out of it?

friendly greetings
and another thing, they have a beautiful decoration now in autumn red and yellow leaves , so beautiful :)

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44 Green Deane October 28, 2013 at 08:53

Cut the bark. The sap flows out then thickens. The sap is too bitter to make wine from it. It is called Sweet Gum not because it is sweet. It is called sweet gum because the other “gum” trees are more bitter.

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45 Rheena January 17, 2014 at 23:50

I’m always in the market for the spiked seed pods — or any seed pods for that matter — for use in my Tree Art. Check it out, and I’ll take any that you wish to send me. My email is at the bottom of my web page: http://www.treeartbyrheena.com.

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46 Michael Bruce February 3, 2014 at 13:32

Do the American and Chinese Gum have the same benefits regarding Flu?
Also my tree has seeds like large grains of sand that blow around the yard but not every year.

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47 Green Deane February 3, 2014 at 14:06

I do not know about the Chinese gum tree. My herbalis consultants say the American Sweet Gum does have benefits regard the flu.

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48 Kenneth Byrd February 4, 2014 at 07:56

Hello
As kids growing up in the 60′s we would collect the gum from gashes in the sweet gum tree and chew it just like chewing gum . It was all ways sweet to my taste in East Texas.

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49 Barry K Jordan February 4, 2014 at 08:38

Hi Kenneth. I’m in southern Virgina. We have many sweet gums around here. I have known them well since I was a kid, because they were the trees we avoided cutting up for firewood. If you ever tried to split one, you would know why. The wood isn’t much good to use to build anything either. So it’s mostly considered a weed tree around here. Two years ago, I cut one out of my wooded lot, to use as a temporary post for my hammock. As it dried, the wood would crack open in a twisting, spiral pattern, just like the grain. I guess that’s why it’s not used for wood working. Last year, since I have been researching wild edibles, I did learn about the sap once being used for chewing gum, but I have yet to try it. My latest efforts have been tapping my 5 maples for maple syrup. But I will at some point try it. Otherwise, I may use some of the trees in a hugelkultur project within my larger permaculture project. I’ll find a use for them yet.

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50 jamesralphstewart February 6, 2014 at 08:00

My question is what do I do with the red ball that falls from the sweet gum tree. Nobody I have read have any suggestion can you tell me what to do with them when they fall from the tree please. One thing for sure I am tried of raking them up my self and thinking about cutting it down, if it is no use for nothing. thank you Please write back or email me for the answer

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51 Green Deane February 11, 2014 at 16:29

Red fruit?

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52 ken hart April 1, 2014 at 12:25

I replied earlier in the blog about the sweet gum and the black walnut.
See reply. ken hart

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53 Jessica March 11, 2014 at 18:23

I have a Gum Tree that is in my yard, it’s healthy but I just don’t care for it. We are looking to have it removed but because it is alive I would rather donate it or sell so it can live on… Any recommendations?

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54 Travis March 23, 2014 at 11:01

Rheena, I have 10 bags reserved for the trash collection. If that doesn’t work, Next year, about this time, you can come to AA county MD and take as many as you can rake. One catch, you have to take them all…….

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55 Fred Smith March 23, 2014 at 12:19

Can the wood of this tree be used in post & beam construction? I have several in my yard and don’t want to burn them.

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56 Green Deane March 23, 2014 at 18:22

Most reference say it is used for wood products and veneer because it is pretty and sometimes sold as “satin walnut.”

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57 Elizabeth April 5, 2014 at 23:18

I live near a sweet gum forest in South Carolina, and enjoy the beautiful luna moths that it supports. Their caterpillars eat the leaves. Just saw the first one of the year tonight (April 5), attracted by my patio light.

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58 Lakebee May 11, 2014 at 20:26

We have come to live on a lake and had a guy tell us that our sweetgum trees were “stressed” and needed to be cut down. He said that the trees are putting out little low branches and that indicates stress. I am wondering if he just wanted the job! They look like perfectly healthy mature trees to me. Any wisdom?

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59 Green Deane May 12, 2014 at 13:22

Unless they might fall on something important I would let nature take its course.

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60 tammy Hill August 31, 2014 at 23:40

so I finally made a sweetgum ball solution. processed green sweetgum balls and covered them in vodka—-2months later and it smells just like tincture of benzoin! Any recommendations on how to go about using this stuff?

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61 Green Deane September 1, 2014 at 14:04

For dosage one should ask an herbalist.

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