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Nyssa sylvatica Marsh.

Common name(s): Black tupelo, Black gum, Pepperidge.
Family: Nyssaceae
Type: Woody plant
Size: 30-50' high, 20-30' wide, 100' in wet flats
Texture: Medium
Range: Maine . Ontario . Michigan . Florida . Texas
Fall Color

"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.


Leaves 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.

Taxonomic description:

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 or wing-margined.


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 or none.

Taxonomic description:

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 clusters.



Fruit 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.

Taxonomic description:

Ovoid, 3/8" to 1/2" long oval blue-black drupe with thin acrid flesh, stone slightly 10-12 ribbed.

Fall Color:

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' beauty.

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.

Fall Color


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 little difficulty.

Suggested uses:

Fruit 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 hand tools.


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.

Companion plants:

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, Vaccinium pallidum.

Wet flooded flats:

    Acer saccaharum, Amelanchier arborea, Cornus florida, Fagus grandifolia, Fraxinus americana, Hamamelis virginiana, Onoclea sensibilis, Parthenocissus quinquefolia, Polygonatum pubescens, Quercus rubra.

Medicinal uses:

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.

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