In Praise of The Tupelo – America’s Black Gum tree is a native worth growing

August 9, 2023

This past weekend has been a blur. We had a symposium on trees at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens followed by a propagation workshop the next day. Dr. Michael Dirr  (author of the indispensible reference book – Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and shrubs) was our distinguished guest speaker. If you’ve had the good fortune to spend any time with Dr. Dirr and his wife, Bonnie, you know that you need to keep your ears open and be ready to absorb as much information as possible. The both love to read, travel, and share information about life and plants. One plant in particular that Dr. Dirr kept bringing up time and time again was the tupelo tree or Nyssa sylvatica. Tupelo or black gum tree as it is also called, is a North American native tree. Its range extends from Ontario down to Texas and Florida.

Growing Tupelo in Maine

There are a few trees that are native here on the CMBG property. We think these might be the northeastern most naturally growing tupelo trees in North America. We are trying to clone them in the hopes that they can provide some cold hardiness to the group.

Nyssa tree fall color

Once established, Nyssa sylvatica will form a strongly pyramidal tree with an ultimate height of around 60′ tall and around half that distance in width. Well-grown Black gum trees are spectacular in form and remind me of what trees look like when my kids draw trees (other than the rounded, puff-ball shaped trees they sometimes draw). Tupelo grows best in an acidic soil in a low well draining area with adequate moisture. They are native to swamps.

Nyssa sylvatica has a strong taproot once established so it is best to move the trees when they are younger. Larger trees can be moved but require a larger rootball.

Of course, the most spectacular quality of the tupelo is its fall color. It is crimson red. The sight of a Nyssa in fall color on a bright cool day in autumn will make you fall in love with this tree.

Wildfire Nyssa - black gum tree

New Black Gum Tree Cultivars:

There are numerous new cultivars coming onto the market with many already available for purchase. After hearing Dr. Dirr speak, there seem to be even more cultivars in the works and coming into the market in the next 5-10 years.

Some of these cultivars include:

Sheri's Cloud nyssa sylvatica - variegated tupelo tree

Here are a few more interesting reasons to grow the Black Gum tree (Nyssa sylvatica):

1. It has ancient lineage- the Nyssa genus, to which Nyssa sylvatica belongs, is an ancient group of trees with a history dating back to the Cretaceous period, making it a living fossil.

2. Nyssa is a water-loving tree. It prefers wet or swampy habitats and grows naturally in floodplains, bottomlands, and along the edges of ponds and streams.

3. I can’t over state the fall color. The leaves are exceptional – turning brilliant shades of red, orange, yellow, and even purple. It is a standout in autumn landscapes.

4. It is a valuable nectar source for native bees and pollinators. Tupelo trees produce nectar-rich flowers that are highly attractive to bees. The nectar from these trees produce a distinct and prized honey known as “Tupelo honey.” (even Van Morrison sings about it). Tupelo honey resists crystallization.

5. The Tupelo tree provides valuable habitat and food for various wildlife species. Birds, such as wood ducks and warblers, eat the tree’s fruits, and many animals take refuge in its branches and hollows.

6. Various parts of the tree were used by Native American tribes for medicinal and practical purposes. The inner bark was used for making baskets, and the leaves were used as a natural dye.

7. The Tupelo tree plays a crucial role in wetland ecosystems. Its extensive root system helps stabilize soil, prevent erosion, and improve water quality by filtering runoff and excess nutrients.

8. Tupelo trees can live for several centuries. They reach heights of up to 100 feet and can grow in a variety of soil types, even adapting to drier conditions as they mature.

9. In swampy areas, Tupelo trees often develop unique buttressed trunks, which are flared or enlarged at the base. This adaptation provides extra stability in soft and wet soil.

Are you growing Nyssa sylvatica or any of these cultivars?

– Rodney

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  1. Laurrie says:

    Love this tree– I am growing 5 Nyssa sylvaticas here. Two are prominent in my front yard as specimen trees and they don’t disappoint. Your pictures show exactly why! The other three are in back and are just as beautiful. Slow growers, but worth it. You won’t get tupelo honey from N. sylvatica. The famous honey comes from the southern one, N. ogeche. But there are so many other reasons to plant this gorgeous northern tupelo. Thanks for highlighting it with such great photos.

  2. Jeff Flanigan says:

    Hi, Very nice post! I don’t currently have any of the Nyssa cultivars described but I do have a connection with N. S.’Sheri’s Cloud’. I am the guy that found the original sapling in a road ditch in the Ouachita mts. I am very curious to know as soon as anyone who has planted any of these sees evidence of gender. As you know, Nyssa Sylvatica is polygamo-dioecious so a male tree will rarely have any fruit and a female rarely produces pollen. The original was too young and was destroyed by road maintenance shortly after I collected scions. So I’d be very grateful if anyone who has a tree that reaches maturity could shoot me an email.

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