Nyssa sylvatica Marsh.
Black tupelo, Black gum, Pepperidge.
30-50' high, 20-30' wide, 100' in wet flats
Maine . Ontario . Michigan . Florida . Texas
"Did you see that tree on the edge of campus? Its fall
color is fantastic!" The object of this attention every
fall is the black tupelo, also called the black gum or
pepperidge. Although often a native of lowland places
in the eastern half of the U.S., this unassuming species
has won its way into the hearts of avid gardeners across
the country. The secret to its attraction lies in
its glossy leaves which produce some of the brightest
and most reliable fall colors the season has to offer.
Despite its fall beauty, its identity during the rest
of the year remains a mystery to much of the gardening
public. Donald Wyman, former horticulturist at the
Arnold Arboretum, noted that samples of this species
are submitted for identification more than any other.
Its identity crisis perhaps stems from its penchant to
reside in lowland areas, places often not easily hiked,
and also because of the lack of a dramatically obvious
leaf shape or other identifying character when not
in fall color. The black tupelo forms a fairly formal
pyramidal to rounded pyramidal crown with a dominant
central leader and lower branches that frequently
droop to the ground. Its lateral branches remain
thin in diameter and form a pattern like spokes on
a wheel when observed from below.
The generic name
refers to the beautiful Greek water nymph Nyssa, while
the specific epithet, sylvatica, means of the woods.
The common name of tupelo is said to derive from the
Creek language meaning tree of the swamp. The origin
of the common name of gum is not understood.
Highly attractive but yet not distinctive enough
for many gardeners to remember it, the leaves of
the black gum are alternate, simple and elliptic to
slightly obovate in shape with margins that are most
commonly entire. The glabrous leaf surface varies
from slightly lustrous to highly glossy. New leaves
are slightly reddish purple, turning to a good dark
green with maturity. Leaf size is commonly about 4
- 5 inches in length and 1 1/2 - 2 inches in width.
The leaf bases are generally rounded but can be cuneate
to wedge-shaped while leaf apices are short acuminate.
The glossiness of the leaf surface gives the tree
a finer texture than might otherwise be ascribed to
plants with similar leaf sizes and also contributes
greatly to the quality of their fall color.
Obovate or elliptic, 4-5" long, acute or obtuse, cuneate
or sometimes rounded at the base, entire, lustrous above,
glaucescent beneath, pubescent on the veins or glabrous
at maturity. Petiole up to 1/4" long long, terete
Small and ineffective, the flowers of black tupelo
are greenish white and do not merit much attention.
The flowers on this species are polygamo-dioecious,
which means that trees are primarily male or female
but some flowers of the opposite sex often appear on
the same tree. This means that some trees will bear
numerous fruits while others will have only a few
Flowers on pubescent or tomentose peduncles 1/2" to
1 1/2" long, staminate pediceled, in many-flowered
heads, pistillate in double or multi-flowered
Classified as a drupe, the 3/8 - 1/2"-long oval
fruits are dark blue to bluish black and borne in late
September and early October. The dark color of the
fruits causes them to blend into the dark green foliage
and makes them fairly unnoticeable unless they hang on
long enough to be highlighted by the bright fall color.
Because fruits are primarily produced on mostly female
trees, some gardeners never get a chance to see them.
In addition, trees can be quickly stripped of their
fruits by a variety of birds and other wildlife.
Ovoid, 3/8" to 1/2" long oval blue-black drupe with
thin acrid flesh, stone slightly 10-12 ribbed.
No matter how often I behold the bright yellows,
oranges, reds and purples of the black tupelo, I never
cease to be inspired by its beauty, year after year,
specimen after specimen. The brightness of its display
are enough to make even harried commuters pull
over to the side of the road in awe of this species'
Some trees will be almost entirely clad in one uniform
color while others will display a beautiful blending
of colors, with reds and oranges predominating. It truly
is a sight to get excited about. Observed on cool,
blue-skied, early fall days, you wonder how it could
be any better.
One of the reasons this tree looks good in many
seasons is its resistance to serious insect and
disease problems. The foliage often looks as good in
early fall as it did soon after emerging in the spring.
Its main problems result from lack of a proper growing
site and transplanting difficulties. Soils should be
slightly acidic or neutral for proper tree health and
contain adequate amounts of moisture. Provision should
be made to protect stems of young specimens from the
browsing of rabbits. Other problems associated with
its culture are minimal.
Due to difficulties in propagation from stem
cuttings, most plants are produced from seed.
Pulp is removed by maceration and the seeds are
recovered by flotation in water. The depulped seed
should be stratified by placing in plastic bags with
moist sand and refrigerated for a minimum of 30 days.
Following removal from stratification, seeds germinate
under warm and moist conditions in about 3 weeks.
Although rooting of cuttings from young plants forced
in the greenhouse has been reported, I have had no
success rooting cuttings from mature outdoor plants.
Some success with tissue culture has been reported.
Nyssa sylvatica is a beautiful shade tree with a
fairly uniform rounded pyramidal habit. Its fall
color alone makes it a highly desired landscape
plant. Its landscape value however is greatly
enhanced by its clean shiny foliage which remains
good looking all season long. Other than supplying
it with slightly acidic or neutral and moist soils,
it is a very undemanding woody plant. I prefer to
see the lower branches remain on the tree all the
way down to the ground, but it can be easily limbed
up for clearance. Large trees are difficult to
transplant due to the presence of a dominant tap root.
Small balled and burlapped or containerized specimens
normally transplant fairly readily into the landscape.
Avoid container-grown specimens with large circling
roots which develop if plants are left in the containers
for too long. Young trees require irrigation until well
established but will tolerate average dry conditions
thereafter. The difficulty in transplanting larger
specimens often results in the species being hard to
find in garden center display lots. The search for
a good specimen is worth the hunt. The best time
to select a specimen is in the fall while it is in
fall color. Transplanting can be done in the fall,
however early spring is the best. I have transplanted
small containerized specimens in the summer with
Black tupelo makes an excellent shade tree. The
formality of its habit lends it to use as a specimen
tree although it can be grown in groves quite nicely
as well. The medium size of the canopy make it quite
useful for smaller properties. If it is to be used as
a street tree, a fair amount of branches must be removed
to get good clearance. Because of its clean attractive
foliage, uniform habit and excellent fall color, it is a
plant that adds value to any property all year around.
Dirr indicates that it is not well suited to highly
polluted areas, although Hightshoe indicates that it will
tolerate sulfur dioxide, ozone and to a lesser extent,
chlorides. The wood of this species is very difficult
to split, resulting in its use as durable handles for
Native to some of the coastal areas of Maine, west to
Ontario and Michigan and South to Texas and Florida.
In its native habitat, its occurrence ranges from
swampy woods to well-drained dry upland areas.
Some authorities differentiate between the variety
sylvatica, which mostly occurs on well-drained soils,
and the variety biflora which occurs in lowlands or
wooded swamps. The variety sylvatica will tolerate
areas with standing water for only limited periods
of time whereas the variety biflora can tolerate it
for much longer. Under this classification scheme,
the variety sylvatica is the form most often found in
the nursery trade. Nyssa sylvatica has a USDA winter
hardiness zone rating of 5a.
Bogs or peaty soils:
Acer rubrum, Aronia prunifolia,
Bartonia virginica, Gaultheria procumbens,
Ilex verticillata, Maianthemum canadese
interius, Osmunda cinnamomea,
Osmunda regalis spectabilis, Populus
tremuloides, Quercus palustris,
Rubus hispidus, Smilax rotundifolia,
Wet flooded flats:
Cornus florida, Fagus grandifolia,
Fraxinus americana, Hamamelis virginiana,
Onoclea sensibilis, Parthenocissus
quinquefolia, Polygonatum pubescens,
This species has no significant medicinal uses.
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Christopher Lindsey is an avid horticulturalist, computer geek, and the President/CEO of Mallorn Computing, Inc.