September 2021 - Black Gum

Common Name: Black Gum.  Has numerous alternate names, including black tupelo, sourgum, pepperidge, and (on Martha’s Vineyard) beetlebung.

Botanical Name: Nyssa sylvatica

Native Range: Eastern North America, Hardiness Zones 4 to 9

Height: 30’-50’

Spread: 20’-30’ 

Growth Rate: Slow to medium.  Typically 12 to 15’ over a 10-15 year period

Sun:  Full sun to part shade

Leaf Description: Alternate (although almost whorled at the tip of the branchlets), simple leaves 3–6" in length with an ovate, obovate or elliptical shape that are a lustrous dark green in the summer on their upper surface, and paler and sometimes downy on their lower surface

Fall Color:  Deciduous, with spectacular fall color.  Can be scarlet, or with many shades of yellow, orange, bright red, and purple.  This tree is the first to turn red in the fall. 

Flower Timing: April to June, after the leaves begin to unfold

Flower Description: Trees are primarily dioecious, with male and female flowers borne on separate trees. Small, inconspicuous, and greenish-white flowers emerge on long stalks, female flowers singly or in sparse groupings of 2-4 blossoms and male flowers in dense multi-bloom spherical clusters

Fruit: Small oval, bluish-black fruits, 3/8 to 1/2" long that ripen in late September to early October and contain a single seed. Juicy and technically edible but are sour, even bitter

Bark Description: Dark-gray bark develops cracks and fissures as it matures, and that checkers into rough square plates, resembling alligator hide on old trunks

Wildlife Benefit:  The flowers’ nectar is an excellent nutrition source for bees in early to late spring.  Black gum trees are a popular nesting tree, especially for cavity nesters, because the trunk of a mature tree often has natural cavities.  Their fruits are eaten by numerous birds and mamals. Throughout the spring and summer the tree hosts a variety of insects and caterpillars which in turn are a food source for insectivorous birds. 

Tolerates: Clay soil, wet soil, poor drainage and black walnuts.  Can tolerate some dryness, but prefers moist, acid soils

Possible Insects: No serious insect problems.

Possible Disease: Usually no serious disease problems. Some susceptibility to canker, rust, leaf miner, scale and leaf spots.  Resistant selections available commercially.

Uses:  A beautiful native tree that can be used as a shade tree or street tree, as well as in a rain garden or in a flood-prone or pond area

Where to be found on municipal property:  Marquand Park has several.  A mature specimen can be found there along Lovers Lane adjacent to the baseball fence.  A newly planted specimen is next to the child playset. Naturally occurring populations of Black gum can also be found along the Northwestern corner of Mountain Lake, in wet boggy areas. Take the green trail loop north and over the wooden foot bridge that crosses Mountain brook to find them.

Additional Facts:

  • Best to plant in spring before onset of growth
  • Choose planting location carefully and prefer smaller size stock.  It is difficult to transplant more mature specimens successfully due to the tree’s tap root 
  • Grows well in moist woodland gardens or naturalized areas or in low or boggy areas subject to periodic flooding
  • Bees that feed on tupelos produce honey that is light and mild-tasting and fetches a high price
  • See how much a Nyssa is valued at


                                                                             Sandra Chen, August 2021

Printable Info Sheet (PDF)


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