The Amazing Sweetgum

Sweetgum, also known as Alligatorwood, has many known culinary and medicinal uses. Today, it’s mostly used to make plywood.

Common Name: Sweetgum
Scientific Name: Liquidambar styraciflua
Plant Family: Altingiaceae
Identifying characteristics: palmately lobed, star-shaped leaves, spiky, round fruit

Center of diversity and current-day distribution

Sweetgum is native to East and South-East regions of North America, as well as regions of Mexico and Central America. The tree has been introduced in Europe and Australia, and today, it is widely planted as a street tree. In the Lakeside neighborhood, there are more than 50 Sweetgum street trees. 

Environmental conditions 

Sweetgum trees prefer moist clay or loamy soils. It likes moist, riparian, swampy areas and does not grow well in the shade. It does not tolerate cold winters. Sweetgums can grow into very tall, dense shade trees. They are considered among the best performers when it comes to carbon sequestration. On the downside, the tree’s roots can lift up pavement and its fruits litter sidewalks. 

Culinary and Medicinal Uses

There is documented use of Maya using the sap in gift exchanges and ceremonies. Native Americans, particularly Cherokee and Choctaw, have various uses for the sap, hardened gum, and bark. Cherokee use the bark for its antidiarrheal properties and to treat wounds. The gum can be used as a drawing plaster, sedative, and chewing gum. The resin was also used to flavor tobacco.

Parts of the tree, including the sap, leaves, bark, and seeds, also contain shikimic acid which has antiviral properties. It is used in the industrial synthesis of oseltamivir phosphate, the active ingredient in Tamiflu, an anti-influenza medication.

Cultural Relevance

Today, the tree’s relevance is fairly limited to its use as a commercial hardwood. It is used for plywood manufacture and for lower-end furniture and veneer. Its many medicinal and culinary properties seem mostly a part of the past. Early American settlers copied Native American uses and found some of their own. In Appalachia, resin was mixed with whiskey to clean teeth and relieve sore gums and toothaches. During the Civil War, the resin was also used as an insect repellent.

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