Sweetgum

Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), a tree native to the eastern United States, has a long history of edible and medicinal uses.

When the bark is wounded, the tree exudes a fragrant, gummy resin known as storax or American styrax. This balsamic oleo resin has a distinctive aromatic odour and a thick, clear, brownish-yellow appearance.

For centuries, various Native American tribes, including the Cherokee, Choctaw, Houma, Koasati, and Rappahannock, have tapped Sweetgum trees to obtain the resin. The tapping process involves deliberately wounding the tree’s bark to encourage the flow of the aromatic, gummy sap.

First, use a sharp tool, such as a knife or a hatchet, to make a series of diagonal cuts or gashes in the tree’s outer bark. These cuts should be deep enough to penetrate the inner bark, the phloem, where the resin is produced and transported.

However, you need to take care of the tree and not damage its vital cambium layer, which is responsible for the growth of new bark and wood.

Once you make the cuts, the storax resin slowly seeps out and accumulates on the surface of the bark. The resin is then collected by scraping it off the tree and gathering it in a container.

The consistency of the resin can vary depending on factors such as the tree’s age, the time of year, and the prevailing weather conditions. Fresh resin is often soft and sticky, while older resin may harden into a solid, brittle mass.

Native Americans chewed the hardened gum as a natural candy and used it for medicinal purposes.

The Cherokee, for instance, used storax to treat skin ailments such as cuts, scrapes, and insect bites. They also employed the resin to remedy respiratory issues, including coughs, colds, and asthma.

The Choctaw and Houma tribes utilised the gum to alleviate digestive problems, such as dysentery and diarrhoea.

The storax primarily provides the medicinal properties of Sweetgum. This resinous sap contains compounds that exhibit anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and expectorant effects.

In traditional medicine, practitioners have used storax to treat a wide range of conditions in both humans and animals, including skin ulcers, sores, catarrh, and wounds.

Modern research has confirmed the antimicrobial potential of storax, revealing its effectiveness against multidrug-resistant bacteria like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).

Beyond its medicinal uses, Native Americans also used Sweetgum resin to flavour beverages, cakes, and even chicles, a type of chewing gum.

The storax from Sweetgum has also found its way into various industries, it has been used it in soaps, cosmetics, perfumes, adhesives, lacquers, incense, and tobacco products.

The introduction of the Sweetgum tree to Europe in 1681 by John Banister, a missionary collector sent by Bishop Compton, marked a significant moment in the species’ history.

By planting Sweetgum in the palace gardens at Fulham in London, England, Banister initiated the spread of this valuable tree beyond its native range. This early introduction not only showcased the sweetgum tree’s ornamental value but also paved the way for further exploration of its potential uses in Europe.

The arrival of Sweetgum in Europe coincided with a period of heightened interest in botanical exploration and the cultivation of exotic plants.

The Sweetgum tree’s unique features, such as its star-shaped leaves and attractive fall foliage, likely captivated European horticulturists and gardeners.

As the tree adapted to its new environment and began to thrive, it attracted the attention of scientists, physicians, and artisans keen to investigate its properties and potential applications.

References

(1) Facciola, S. (1998). Cornucopia II: A source book of edible plants. Kampong Publications.

(2) Liquidambar styraciflua in Flora of North America @ efloras.org. (n.d.). Retrieved 12 December 2023.

(3) Liquidambar styraciflua—Trees and Shrubs Online. (n.d.). Retrieved 12 December 2023

(4) Moerman, D. E. (1998). Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press.

(5) Kunkel, G. (1984). Plants for Human Consumption: An Annotated Checklist of the Edible Phanerogams and Ferns. Koeltz Scientific Books.

(6) Lingbeck, J. M., O’Bryan, C. A., Martin, E. M., Adams, J. P., & Crandall, P. G. (2015). Sweetgum: An ancient source of beneficial compounds with modern benefits. Pharmacognosy Reviews, 9(17), 1–11.

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