PHOTO: Maggie/Flickr
Dawn Combs
November 1, 2019

We’re having a perfect fall in Ohio. We’ve had just enough rain and moderately warm days that the leaves are easing slowly into the final drop. We have loads of color, and I’ve been enjoying some of my favorite trees as I drive around the community. I absolutely love the huge sugar maple that is halfway between our shop in town and the farm. Truthfully, it is probably my favorite fall color. Second to that is the sweet gum.

We have a sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua) in the front yard. My mother bought it for me as a birthday present—I can’t remember which birthday, and that probably means it was quite some time ago. The tree has been busy growing for so many years that it hasn’t really shown us much in the fall. This year, however, it has finally come into its own.

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Sweet Gum Healing

It takes the sweet gum tree 20 to 30 years to mature enough to produce its fruit. The trees’ spike ball fruit is almost as telltale for identification as the star-shaped leaves. While you wait, the tree has much to offer. The sweet gum got its name for the resinous sap that results when you score its bark. It is not, however, sweet. The gum has long been harvested and used for chewing gum, but it is also known to have anti-inflammatory properties.

Sweet gum sap has caught the attention of medical researchers, and we know that much of its folkloric uses are now backed with scientific reasoning. Extracts from the sap have shown promise in fighting drug-resistant bacteria and hypertension. It is a potent anti-fungal and an effective natural pesticide.

Once you have a fruiting tree, an entirely new variety of benefits is available to you. The seeds contained within all those spikes are anticonvulsant and have possible applications for epilepsy. It’s too late in the season to harvest sweet gum for its flu fighting abilities, but look for the immature pods next year. When the seeds mature they turn black, but while they are still yellow they contain shikimic acid, the same ingredient in Tamiflu that was originally harvested only from star anise. I am told the best way to preserve this acid is to crush the green pods and tincture them.

Growing the Tree

Sweet gum wood is a favorite for furniture, and the sap is added to tincture of benzoin and found often in incense. There is quite a lot of good wrapped up in this amazing tree.

If you’d like to grow your own sweet gum, first understand that it’s a commitment to a tree that many describe as a nuisance. Those spiky fruits drop on your lawn and are seemingly immune to your efforts to rake or mow them. You’ll have to love the tree for all its other qualities. Sweet gum is hardy in zones 5-9. It is rated as a fast growing tree and will tolerate moist soils.

I might change my mind about which tree I love the best in fall. The sweet gum is certainly making a valiant effort to persuade me. Only time will tell.

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