Liquidambar, a tree popular in gardens, parks, and roadsides because of its brilliant autumn foliage, has an interesting quality hidden behind its beauty - it contains useful medicinal properties.
The tree's name comes from the amber-coloured 'gum' also known as balsam, which was used by the Aztecs to flavour tobacco.
The Spanish explorer, Hernando Cortez, may have been the first person from the Old World to smoke this tobacco. He dined with the Aztec Emperor Montezuma, and after they finished their meal cigarettes made from the balsam flavoured tobacco were brought to the table.
In the southern part of the American continent, Indians were said to have made remedies from the balsam to treat wounds and fevers.
An extract of the leaves and bark were used by European settlers to treat diarrhoea. When it wasn't possible to make the extract, the leaves were chewed to treat the condition.
The balsam was also mixed with lard or tallow to make a salve to treat skin infections including ringworm of the scalp, and for haemorrhoids. On its own, the balsam was reported to be a cure for skin inflammations and herpes.
In its dried form, balsam is known as storax and is still used today for its medicinal benefits in the treatment of conditions such as skin problems and coughs.
However, balsam is mainly used to flavour chewing gum, sweets, tobacco, and soft drinks and it's also used to add scent to soaps and perfumes.
Liquidambar, also known as North American sweet gum, red gum, and star-leaved gum is native to North America and introduced to Australia and New Zealand.
The tree is deciduous and can grow up to 42 metres tall in temperate areas. The star-shaped leaves have five to seven finely toothed, pointed lobes. Tiny flowers appear in spring and are followed by spiky, round seed heads.