Sweetgum trees are everywhere in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama-except in high altitude areas. They are very important source of lumber and building products, but in our own backyards they are often cursed. Here is Georgia their seed pods are called “gum balls” and one tree will produce hundreds of gum balls which will need to be racked up before going barefoot.
Other names for Sweetgum are Star Leaf Gum, Sap Gumand Red Gum. The Cherokee would use the harden gum or rosin as a chewing gum. The gum smells sweet but is actually bitter. Storax is a resin from the tree used as an incense and as a soap.
The Cherokee used sweetgum tea to treat diarrhea, dysentery and anxiety. The resin was mixed with sheep or cow fat and applied on itches, cuts, open sores and cankers. A salve was placed on sores and bruises as a drawing poultice. Hardened sap was rolled up and placed in a dog’s nose to treat distemper, and yes the Cherokee used plant medicine on their animals as well. I remember using plant medicine on our animals when I was growing up.
It blooms in April and May and the Sweetgum loves full sun. It normally grows to 60-80 feet tall but one in my lower garden is well over 100 feet tall. The female flowers mature to gum balls (1.5 inches in diameter) which will drop between December to April. These are a real pain as you can see in the picture above.
One very interesting fact about the botanical name: Liquidambar sturaciflua , the earliest known published record of Liquidambar styraciflua is in a work by Spanish naturalist Francisco Hernandez was in 1651 AD. He described the species as a large tree producing a fragrant gum resembling liquid amber.