Tree Medicine

Sweet Gum Tree (Liquidambar styraciflua)

Baby sweet gum tree
Baby sweet gum tree

Sweet Gum is becoming well loved in the herbal community because it is known as an amazing ingredient in cold and flu formulas. It contains shikimic acid in its infertile seeds; the same ingredient found in the Star Anise tree (which was used to create Tamiflu). You can read more about the specifics in Green Deane’s link at the bottom of this page.

Several of my highly respected herbalist friends feel that Tamiflu doesn’t help with colds and the flu, so why would we want to try sweetgum? They have not seen enough evidence to show that sweetgum helps to ease cold and flu symptoms or that it reduces the time that people are sick. Other amazing herbalists, however, have worked with this tree and claim it’s a very valuable addition to their cold and flu treatments.

To tincture sweet gum, simply gather green (unripe) sweet gum balls, cut them up (with a skill saw… I’m just kidding, but DAMN) and place them in a quart jar. Fill to the top with alcohol and let it steep for 6 weeks. Some folks have experimented with just gathering the infertile seeds from opened balls, which is time consuming, but I do love experiments.

Darryl Patton at The Southern Herbalist suggests boiling the green balls and drinking the decoction for its anti viral properties.


Native medicine decocts the inner bark of the sweet gum tree as a remedy for influenza, and according to Starkville MS herbalist Mandi Sanders, the Appalachian herbalists use it as well. Mandi also suggests taking a combination of elderberry and sweet gum tincture to help prevent sickness. Personally I dose up on elderberry/elder flower from October to March to keep my immune system nice and healthy. I am looking forward to experimenting with sweet gum for this as well… maybe when I know I have been exposed to some yuck.


As an infused oil (leaves, stems, inner bark), I use a simple oil of sweet gum for mild aches; those aches that announce that I’ve been sitting too long and need to move (usually in my low back and neck). I also love to add it to my pain salves. I rotate among sweet gum, mugwort, pine and tulip poplar, and I always use cottonwood buds, St. John’s Wort, Eastern red cedar, goldenrod and solomon’s seal. I’m putting horsetail in my next batch. And maybe some mullein.

Other uses for sweet gum: 

The leaves can be used as a poultice to treat stings and insect bites.

I include sweet gum resin in my incense blends (along with copal, pine and other resins)

The seeds from the green pods can be chewed after a meal as a carminative. This makes me curious about adding it to my digestion and bitters blends. *perk* (see Tommie Bass’s comments below)

A decoction from the inner bark is traditionally (Cherokee) used to calm the nerves. According to the USDA plant database (,

“The bark was used to make an infusion that was used as a sedative for nervous patients and for patients who were well in the day but sick during the night. The plant was used to treat colic, internal diseases and to “comfort the heart.”

Sweet Gum for the Heart??

by Kelli Hughart Armes
by Kelli Hughart Armes

From Kelli Hughart Armes:

“I use it [sweet gum] quite a bit. I use them in pain formulas, I use them in spasm formulas. I have chewed the leaves in the field for spasm cough. I use them in flu or viral formulas (not as much as pain though), but I find it shines more in pain and anywhere there is spasmy stuff that needs relaxed. I have used the leaf extract too just not as much; it’s astringent, so where you need that the leaf is good.”

Tommie Bass made a cough syrup that included sweet gum:

“I made a cough syrup out of equal parts of boneset, wild cherry bark, sweet gum [leaves], mullein, and rabbit-tobacco. I put a quart of the mixed herbs in a gallon of water and steep it forty minutes to an hour, strain it, and add honey or syrup or any kind of sweetening. My mother made a cough syrup very much like this.”

Tommie said that he used the leaves in the summer time and the bark in the winter. The inner bark is best. He also noted that sweet gum made “a good tonic, good to settle your stomach…and ease ulcers”. He also suggested using a decoction as a tea to wash your hair. Sweet gum resin infused in whiskey “eased consumption”. ~from Herbal Medicine Past and Present, Volume 2.

More on Sweet Gum:

Eat the Weeds with Green Deane: Sweet Gum Tree

Foraging Texas: Sweet Gum

The University of Arkansas on Sweet Gum extraction

Henriette’s Herbal Homepage on Liquidambar

Backyard Nature: Sweet Gum