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Essential Oils

Liquidambar Essential Oil - An Exotic Oil That May Be Hiding in Your Own Backyard

In autumn, the leaves of the stately trees from which the essential oil liquidambar is derived are a burst of colors - hues of deep orange and a hint of red, copper and deep purple - the color one imagines the oil would also be based on its name, liquidambar, a thick liquid that ultimately looks like molten gold.

While liquidambar gains all the attention, as it should, it is the round, burr-like seed pods of the tree also known as sweetgum that let you know you’ve encountered the right deciduous tree. The distinctive pods, just smaller than a ping-pong ball and surrounded with spikes, are green when they are ripe fruit, but turn dark auburn as seeds and then drop off the tree to pepper the region beneath it, making walking barefoot beneath a grove of Liquidambar styraciflua trees a dangerous exercise, and less fun for the person charged with raking.

Most of them, however, have no idea of the precious resin they have hidden in their yard, just waiting to be harvested.

Also known as the American sweetgum tree, the Liquidambar styraciflua tree produces liquidambar, a resin that is similar to maple sap, and oozes from the bark of the tree when it is injured. It is later distilled into a powerful essential oil. 1

liquidambar The History of Liquidambar

Discovered in the rainforests of Honduras, the Liquidambar styraciflua tree makes up much of the thick woodland on the Olancho Mountains of Honduras but is also equally at home along North America’s East Coast, where it grows from Georgia to Maryland and was used as a medicinal by native American tribes. Fossil records date this tree as far back as 10,000 years, with the Aztecs and Native Americans in Central America also using the resin as part of their healing rituals and traditions.

The resin was also chewed to bring relief for sore throats, asthma, and dysentery, as well as other intestinal woes.

A member of the witch hazel family, the tree is a lovely ornamental, but it is the resin or styrax, that is its most important aspect of the tree.

The fossilized remains of sweetgum trees date back more than 10,000 years, and in the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, liquidambar resin was mixed with feathers of the Quetzal (a colorful Central American bird) to make a healing poultice for wounds. 2

First officially documented in 1519, when Montezuma shared the secrets of sweetgum with Hernan Cortes, author Don Bernal Diaz del Castillo wrote about the use of the resin by the two men as Montezuma told the Spanish conquistador about the resin’s use not only for healing wounds but also for the manufacture of drugs and for use as incense and in perfumery. In return, Cortes conquered Central America and began to import large amounts of liquidambar from Spain, where it was used both for medicine and perfume.

Liquidambar styraciflua, named after the orange resin that is revealed beneath the tree’s bark, not only grows in Honduras but also El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico as well as the eastern United States. It is also grown as an ornamental tree throughout Australia’s more tropical climates.

Woody with a hint of balsam, liquidambar is also surprisingly sweet.

There are four different species of the liquidambar tree, Liquidambar styraciflua, Liquidambar acalycine (native to central and southern China), liquidambar formosana (native to central and southern China, southern Korea, Taiwan, Laos and northern Vietnam) and liquidambar Orientalis (native to southwest Turkey and Greece). 3

Here, however, we are talking about the liquidambar styraciflua, native to North and South America.

While the fruit and seed pods get all the attention, what is special about the sweetgum is found between the bark and the trunk of the tree. The resin is similar to the sap that results in maple syrup, which a golden amber color that is eventually filtered and distilled into a cinnamon-scented oil.

The process takes several months, and is similar to the making of frankincense, which has made liquidambar so prized over the centuries.

The sap of the sweetgum is harvested in autumn, the same time that maple sap is collected, and while the sap is boiled down until it becomes a thick syrup, liquidambar is filtered and distilled into an essential oil with myriad benefits.

The resin has notes of cinnamon, pine, balsam, floral and spice, with hints of sweet lilac and hyacinth.

Liquidambar pairs well with citrus scents including mimosa, orange, mandarin, and neroli as well as florals such as violet, lavender, vanilla, ylang-ylang, rose, jasmine as well as frankincense, myrrh and patchouli.

It is best used in small amounts to enhance the scent of other formulas, as it acts as a fixative and keeps those aromas stronger for a longer period of time.

Some perfumes that have used liquidambar include Guerlain’s Apres l’Ondee (1906), Chanel No 5 (1921), and Tweed (1933) by Lentheric. 2

More about Liquidambar

Liquidambar essential oil is one of the rarest of essential oils, in part because of the way in which it is harvested, in the wild, from trees that don’t give up that sap-like resin easily.

Sweetgum notes

The largest sweetgum tree has been recorded in North Carolina. It stands 136 feet.

American sweetgum seeds are eaten by a variety of birds including eastern goldfinches, purple finches, sparrows, mourning doves, and wild turkeys. Small mammals such squirrels and chipmunks also enjoy the seeds.

The sweetgum tree has been used to restore the health of terrain where mining activity had previously taken place.

A grove of sweetgum trees was planted as a memorial at the site of the September 11 crash of Flight 93, which went down in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, bound for a landmark in New York City. 13

It earned its name from the golden color of the thick resin, which was one of the oldest materials known to be used as natural incense. 4

According to the book “Native Trees for North American Landscapes, sweetgum is adaptable to a variety of conditions, “preferring deep, moist, acidic soil and full sun.” It will grow more quickly under these ideal conditions, but will also grow in dry soil, albeit a bit more slowly. The seed pods with germinate freely, however, so the trees can spread.

Sweetgum is one of the most common hardwood trees growing in southeastern U.S. Hydrangeas makes good companion plants, according to Shoot online, a website for gardeners.

The resin from sweetgum was used for a variety of different products including soap, adhesive and an array of pharmaceuticals, but the wood is now of value for lumber, veneer, interior finishing wood and furniture.

Chemical Properties liquidambar

According to a 2015 study from researchers in Alabama, liquidambar, also known as American storax, contains numbers of beneficial compounds that offer health benefits.

They include:

Cinnamic acid

Cinnamic acid is a phytochemical in plants that may help erase sun spots by inhibiting the activity of tyrosinases, which interacts with melanocytes, causing the production of melanin, which causes the skin to appear darker. It was also shown to help prevent oxidative stress, which can damage cells, causing signs of aging. 5


Benzyl acts as an analgesic and is similar to lidocaine and will numb and ease the surface pain.


Liquidambar is still used as an ingredient in the old-fashioned medicinal compound tincture of benzoin. It is often used to treat respiratory conditions.


Sometimes used in place of the pricier vanilla, vanillin is a sweet substitute for a vanilla bean, which is growing so expensive that some ice cream makers have removed the top favorite vanilla from its lineup. Vanillin is used in perfume and cleaning products.


While styrene is used to make many Styrofoam and plastic-based products, it is also a fixative and blends well with carrier oils to help extend the aroma of Liquidambar.

Shikimic acid

Shikimic acid is used in the product Tamiflu, a product that is available both by prescription and over the counter to treat cold and flu and can be synthesized into an antibiotic. 6

Uses for Liquidambar Essential Oil

Acts as an Antiseptic

According to Dr. Francois Couplan in his book “The Encyclopedia of Edible Plants of North America,” the sweetgum obtained from the bark of the tree “has antiseptic qualities,” which explains why Native Americans used the resin to help wounds heal more quickly.” 7

Provides Pain Relief

Because liquidambar contains benzyl, it is an excellent option for pain relief, especially that associated with cuts, scrapes and other injuries to the surface of the skin.

Relieves Flu Symptoms

Native Americans made a tea out of the bark from the sweetgum tree to ease the symptoms associated with the flu. Due to the levels of shikimic acid in liquidambar, the sap is especially beneficial for treating sore throats, coughs, and congestion. It is most beneficial when chewed. 8

Remedies Skin Problems

Liquidambar can be used to treat infectious skin problems including ringworm, hives, boils, and scabies because of the antiseptic qualities in the sap.

Improves Appearance of Skin

In addition to fine lines and wrinkles, one of the first signs of aging is dark sports caused by the sun. Thanks to the cinnamic acid in liquidambar, its use as an essential oil may help restore younger-looking skin by erasing dark spots left behind by sun exposure. Liquidambar also has antioxidants that fight free radicals that can result in wrinkles and sagging, lackluster skin. To use, add a few drops to a bowl full of hot water and place a towel over your head, allowing the steam – and the oil’s antioxidants – to penetrate the pores of the skin, reaching the cells beneath the skin’s surface where nutrients can do the most good.

Fights Bacteria

According to studies, liquidambar could be the next step in the fight against drug-resistant bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus, which is resistant to methicillin, a derivative of penicillin. 9

Improves Blood Sugar

The cinnamic acid in liquidambar has been studied for its impact on blood glucose. Based on research, the cinnamic acid helps boost insulin levels, so there is more of the hormone on hand to help manage blood glucose, so more is taken into the body’s cells for energy. 10

Alleviates Anxiety

The sweet oil both relaxes and uplifts while relieving feelings of anger, alleviating the hormonal reactions to stress that can cause damage to the body due to elevated levels of cortisol. Because it relieves stress and anxiety, it can also work as a way to treat insomnia. To ease anxiety or help you drift off to sleep more easily, add a few drops of the essential oil into a warm bath sometime before bed.

Boosts Immune System Function

Compounds in liquidambar can help stimulate the immune system, most likely by healing the digestive system, where the bulk of the body’s immune system resides.

Repels Insects

The sap of the sweetgum tree has been used to eradicate nematodes, a garden pest that invades gardens and carries diseases, and the yellow mosquito, among other pests, making it a potential additive to environmentally-friendly pesticides.

Relieves Pain

The benzyl in liquidambar helps temporarily ease the pain of a toothache, at least until you can get to a dentist to determine the cause of the pain.

The balm made from liquidambar contains cinnamic acid, benzyl, ethyl, and cinnamyl cinnamate, and can treat a wide range of ailments ranging from muscle pain associated with overexertion or rheumatoid arthritis or skin problems requiring an antiseptic or antifungal.

Liquidambar is one of the main ingredients in Friar’s Balsam, a medicinal that can be both ingested and used topically, to relieve coughs, ease rashes, itching, and sores while speeding the healing process of cuts and scrapes. 11

In order to use liquidambar, mix it with other essential oils, add it to bath products, blend it with unscented butter (shea, cocoa or coconut), or use it as aromatherapy by placing a few drops of oil into a diffuser, to it can bring an exotic sweetness to your space.

Liquidambar Infographic

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