This week’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Liquidambar styraciflua, or American Sweetgum. If you were around SARCRAFT in the early days, you would have heard Jonathan and I refer to Sweetgum as the most useless tree in the forest, only good for making toothbrushes (which we’ll touch on in a minute.) But we were set straight by Philip Winter, one of our students. Sweetgum’s medicinal values were illuminated to us, and ever since, I’ve done considerable research on the tree and discovered that it’s not the trash tree most believe it to be.
Sweetgum gets a bad rap mostly due to its seed pods – round, spiky balls of death that hurt like a mother when you step on them barefoot, or are a slip hazard any other time. I have bad ankles that tend to sprain easily, so I have a special hate in my heart for them. It’s not just that, though. If you’re a property owner, you’re aware of the incredible tenacity of sweetgums. They’re impossible to get rid of. If you cut one down, be prepared for a thicket of suckers to emerge from its roots. If you cut those off, they’ll just re-grow. It’s like the hydra of the tree world. The wood is also terrible for pretty much anything. It’s not particularly strong, but somehow at the same time it’s next to impossible to split. If you’re using an axe, you can pretty much forget about it if it’s a large log. If you’re wielding a maul, your chances are slightly better. But even with a PTO-driven tractor mounted corkscrew log splitter, I’ve failed to cleanly split a sweetgum round. And even if you do succeed, it’s not great firewood. It burns up fast, but not very hot. It also smokes a lot and tends to pop. It’s a marginal timber tree, since it tends to warp badly when dried. It’s mostly used for applications where looks and workability don’t matter, like railroad ties. And for bushcraft applications, its uses are limited. It’s fine for things like shelter poles where it doesn’t bear much weight or take any impact, but other than that, you’re better off looking elsewhere. Sweetgum is springy to a point, but tends to shatter when put under much stress. And when left in the elements, it will quickly split and rot.
Now that I’ve got that off my chest, we can move on. We all know about sweetgum’s bad qualities, but this post is about highlighting the fact that even trees that are a pain in the ass sometimes were created with a valuable purpose and are well worth our knowing.
Sweetgum is common. If you’ve ever set foot in the Eastern Woodlands, you’ve seen it, whether you knew it or not. It’s a large tree, with old-growth specimens reaching nearly 200’ and 6’-8’ across at the base. They grow fast, putting on up to three feet of new growth a year when they’re young. They have a light gray fissured bark that looks sort of corky when they’re young, and gets rougher and flakier as the tree ages. It branches alternately, and the distal limbs may have flat, corky “wings” on them, which is one of this tree’s most identifiable characteristics. The leaves are palmate, with three to seven (most commonly five) lobes. (If you’re a 90’s kid like me and grew up watching The Land Before Time series, you’ll recognize it instantly. It’s a Tree Star.) Which leads me to the first of Sweetgum’s redeeming qualities: It’s gorgeous in the fall. Its leaves turn various shades of brilliant red, purple, orange, and yellow, sometimes all mixed together on the same tree or even the same leaf. It’s quite a sight to behold.
Its aforementioned seed pods begin to drop in late summer, and continue through the fall and winter months, as anyone who’s ever had to rake them out of their yard can attest. They look like a medieval mace, slightly smaller than a golf ball and covered in half-inch long spines.
Sweetgums are a native American tree, and can be found throughout the Southeast. They’re not particularly cold hardy, and their northern range only extends about as far as the maritime areas of the mid-Atlantic states. You won’t find them in the high elevations of the Appalachians, either, or the upper Midwest. They can, however, be found in the cloud forests of Mexico and Central America, and of all places… Australia. Apparently American Sweetgums are a very popular ornamental tree in the more temperate areas of southern Australia, and have escaped and become naturalized. Australia holds the largest population of American sweetgums outside of the States. There is also a nearly identical species in Asia, that ranges throughout much of southern China, Taiwan, and Japan. In the Eastern Woodlands, sweetgums are one of the most common trees around. They aren’t picky about habitat in the slightest, although when given the choice, they prefer low, rich areas such as creek and river bottoms where they can get plenty of water. Your most likely chance of spotting one is any disturbed area, such as a logging cut, power line right-of-way, abandoned construction site, overgrown field, or the like. Their windblown seeds make them, along with Loblolly pines and tulip poplars, one of the first trees to re-forest a cleared area.
Sweetgum really isn’t considered an edible. You can eat its leaves in a pinch, if there’s nothing else around or it’s the only plant you can safely identify in a wilderness survival situation. Its name comes from its sap, which can be collected from any wound in the bark and chewed. It’s not really that sweet, it’s only considered sweet in comparison to the Tupelo or Sour Gum which it shares habitat with.
Sweetgum’s primary value lies in medicine and hygiene. Its traditional medicinal use among the Indians and pioneers of the Eastern Woodlands was as a decoction made of the inner bark. Old timers would typically take two cups of dried inner bark to one gallon of water, put it on a low boil for thirty minutes, and strain it. Sweeten with sugar or honey, and you’re good to go. Typical dosage was half a cup to one cup twice a day. This decoction is a powerful remedy for coughs, colds, flu, and fevers. It works as a gentle expectorant to help expel mucus, and as an antispasmodic to calm your lungs. Externally, the leaves have been used as a poultice for arthritis and sore joints, and work well as an anti-inflammatory. A salve can even be made by burning those infernal sweetgum balls down to ash (which is satisfying in its own right) and mixing that ash with bear grease or lard.
But perhaps the most interesting medicinal use of sweetgum is its use as a targeted influenza treatment that’s on par with off-the-shelf medications… because the ingredients are the same. Tamiflu is a universally known flu medication that is proven to shorten the duration and severity of flu symptoms. Chemically, it’s known as oseltamivir phosphate, and is made from the seed pods of the Chinese Star Anise tree… which happens to be a close relative of Sweetgum. The active ingredient is known as shikimic acid. While not as high a level as in the Star Anise, shikimic acid is most definitely present and accounted for in Sweetgum balls. The infertile (wingless) seeds, in particular. Shikimic acid inhibits the protein synthesis that allows the influenza virus to break out of its host cell and reproduce itself, thereby stopping its spread within the body. So by making a hot infusion of sweetgum seeds, you can concoct your very own homemade Tamiflu in a pinch. While not as powerful as the pharmaceutical-grade stuff, it still has the same active ingredients and still works. Pretty cool, huh?
Sweetgum has another valuable use that’s also important for staying healthy in the woods. If you’ve ever been to pretty much any SARCRAFT course ever, you’ve seen us make a toothbrush out of a sweetgum twig. In the pioneer days, store bought toothbrushes weren’t really a thing. We always think of Native Americans and settlers as having hopelessly bad teeth, but dental records from the time suggest that they weren’t much worse off than we are now. One reason is the fact that they had almost no access to processed sugar, but another is that they still found ways to take care of their teeth. This is one of them. Take your knife and cut a sweetgum twig no larger than a #2 pencil and 4”-6” long. Sharpen one end of it. That’s your toothpick. Take the other end and carefully score the face of it with your knife. This helps it fuzz out more quickly. Then simply chew on it for a while until the wood fibers start to fuzz out into a brush. If you ever spent any time around old-timers who were chewing on a random twig, this is what they were doing. Once you’re satisfied with the bristle texture, you can brush your teeth. The technique is different than what you’re used to – you’ve got to go one tooth at a time. But let me tell you, this really works. In fact, I’d wager that I have better results cleaning my teeth with a sweetgum twig than with a store-bought toothbrush. What about toothpaste, you ask? Campfire ash works great. The microscopic charcoal particles help to polish your teeth clean… in fact, mainstream hygiene products are coming back around to this. If you’ve ever seen that high-dollar charcoal toothpaste, you can replicate pretty much the same result for a few pennies around a campfire. And there’s absolutely no wood that works better for this than sweetgum. That same twisty, uneven grain pattern that makes it impossible to split for firewood ensures that it doesn’t become actual splinters that will become embedded in your gums (ouch). The sap also has mild antiseptic qualities, which helps eliminate bad breath and leaves your mouth feeling clean and fresh.
Quality personal hygiene, especially dental hygiene, is one of the most overlooked of all wilderness skills. When most guys get in the woods they behave like unwashed heathens and won’t shower, shave, or brush their teeth for weeks at a time. For a few days, this really isn’t a problem. But over time, lack of bathing can lead to chafing and skin infections, and a lack of dental hygiene can result in serious tooth problems. If you’re off the grid for an extended period of time, whether it’s by choice or not, this can lead to real, mission-ending, life-threatening consequences. Think about Tom Hanks in Castaway. Do you want to knock out your abscessed tooth with an ice skate? Didn’t think so. Brush your damn teeth.
Do you have any favorite uses for Sweetgum that we missed? Did you grow up using a sweetgum toothbrush? Tell us in the comments! And if you got something of value from this post, do us a favor and share it with your friends! Thanks!