Black gum tupelo tree


Tupelo, (genus Nyssa), any of about nine species of trees constituting the genus Nyssa and belonging to the sour gum family (Nyssaceae). Five of the species are found in moist or swampy areas of eastern North America, three in eastern Asia, and one in western Malaysia. They all have horizontal or hanging branches and broad alternate leaves, and they are dioecious (male and female flowers on different plants). All the North American tupelos produce small greenish white flowers and small bluish black or purple berries (fruits).

Water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica)Copyright C.C. Lockwood/Bruce Coleman Inc.

The most widely distributed member in North America is the black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), also known as black gum, sour gum, or pepperidge tree. It grows in woods and moist areas from Maine southward to the Gulf Coast and westward to Oklahoma. This tree typically grows to a height of 60 feet (18 metres) and occasionally attains a height of 100 feet (30 metres). It is sometimes grown as an ornamental and is prized for its brilliant scarlet autumnal foliage. A variety of the black tupelo called the swamp black tupelo (N. sylvatica, variety biflora) grows in swamps along the east coast and in the Deep South.

The water tupelo (N. aquatica), also called cotton gum, or swamp gum, grows in swamps of the southeastern and Gulf of Mexico coasts and in the Mississippi River valley northward to southern Illinois. It grows in pure stands or in association with bald cypress and other swamp trees. The water tupelo typically reaches heights of 80–100 feet (24–30 metres), and its trunk is conspicuously enlarged at the base.

The ogeechee lime (N. ogeche) is a rarer North American tupelo that produces edible fruits and a fine honey.

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Tupelo wood, most of which comes from the water tupelo, is pale yellow to light brown, fine-textured, and strong. It is used for crates and boxes, flooring, wooden utensils, and veneers.

Blackgum/Tupelo trees: At home in the river or your backyard

The swollen base and smooth gray bark of the swamp blackgum are identifying characteristics in wetlands. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

In the river swamps of northwest Florida, the first tree to come to mind is typically the cypress. The “knees” protruding from the water are eye-catching and somewhat mysterious. Sweet bay magnolia is an easily recognizable species as well, with its silvery leaves twisting in the wind. The sweet bay (Magnolia virginiana) is a relative of the Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) in many of our yards, but its buds and leaves are smaller and it is found most often in very wet soils.

However, the often-unsung trees of the swamps are the tupelo and blackgum trees, including three species of Nyssa that go by a variety of overlapping common names. In the western Panhandle, one is most likely to see a swamp tupelo/swamp blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica var. biflora). The trees are tall—60-100’ at maturity—and have unremarkable elliptical green leaves. However, those leaves turn a lovely shade of red in the fall before dropping in the winter. Their most distinguishing characteristic year-round–but especially in the winter–is its swollen lower trunk, which expands at the base to twice or three times the size of the remaining trunk. These buttresses, also found on bays (more subtly) and cypress (along with knees), are an adaptation to stabilizing a tree growing in large pools of wet, loose soil or standing water.

A young blackgum tree in full fall color. Photo credit: UF IFAS Extension

The swamp tupelo has two more relatives in the region, water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) and Ogeechee lime/tupelo (Nyssa ogeche), both with hanging edible (but tart) fruit. In the early days of William Bartram’s explorations of Florida, explorers used the acidic Ogeechee lime as a citrus substitute. Typically found in a narrower range from Leon County east to southeast Georgia, the Ogeechee lime is the nectar source for the famous and prized multi-million dollar tupelo honey industry.

Blackgum or tupelo trees (missing the “swamp” in front of their common name—aka Nyssa sylvatica) are actually excellent landscape trees that can thrive in home landscapes. Like their swamp cousins, the trees perform well in slightly acidic and moist soil, although they can thrive even in the disturbed, clay-based soils found in many residential developments. Blackgums can grow in full sun or shade, are highly drought tolerant, and can even handle some salt exposure. Their showy fall color is a nice addition to many landscapes, and the fruit are an excellent source of nutrition for native wildlife.

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Carrie Stevenson

Coastal Sustainability Agent, Escambia County Extension

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Black Gum

Introduction: From waxy spring foliage and brilliant fall color to beautiful winter form, the black gum shows great ornamental value. It has unique, thick bark that is arranged in six-sided plates. It is striking throughout the year, and as it grows older, its graceful, drooping branches add to the distinct form and beauty of this tree. Culture: Black gum performs best on moist, well-drained, acidic soil, it adapts to extreme climates, tolerates wet conditions and is resistant to drought. Black gum will not tolerate alkaline soil and may suffer damage from pollution. Although it will grow in full sun or partial shade, fall color is enhanced by sunny conditions. Black gum has few disease or insect problems. The tree should be transplanted in spring either balled-and-burlapped or as a container plant.

Botanical Information

  • Native habitat: Dry hills or wet flatlands of the eastern U.S.; a Kentucky native.
  • Growth habit: Pyramidal when young, black gum develops an irregular rounded or flat-topped form with age.
  • Tree size: This slow-growing tree attains a height of 30 to 50 feet and a width of 20 to 30 feet. Rarely reaches 100 feet in the wild.
  • Flower and fruit: Flowers are small and insignificant. The bitter, ½-inch blue-black drupes are favored by wildlife but are not particularly ornamental.
  • Leaf: This species’ outstanding feature is its dark, glossy foliage that consistently develops spectacular crimson, purple, yellow or orange fall color.
  • Hardiness: Winter hardy to USDA Zone 4.

Additional information:
Of the Nyssaceae family, only the genus Nyssa is native to North America. Fossils of Nyssa’s characteristic ribbed seed reveals the presence of these trees in former geological periods and throughout Europe, Asia and North America. The first Nyssa species described was a swamp-growing type. Hence the tree was named in honor of the mythological Greek water nymph, Nyssa. The specific epithet, sylvatica, means “of the woods.” This species has two common names: black gum, referring to the dark leaves; while tupelo is derived from the Creek Indian name for the tree (ito opilwa), which means “swamp tree”.Aged black gums begin decaying from the top so trees become shorter as they grow older. Because decay begins in the heartwood, there are many hollow black gum trees in the forest. The hollow trees are cut down and then cut into short sections and used for beehives. Black gum is one of the best honey-producing trees in the world. Because of its twisted grain, black gum cannot be split so it has been somewhat spared by lumbermen. The resilient wood is good for making tool handles.

The national champion black gum (67 feet) is in New Jersey.

Because black gum is difficult to propagate vegetatively, few selections have been made. Because provenance has an effect on fall color display, it is recommended a colorful seedling tree from a local source be chosen.

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Tupelo Tree Care: Learn About Tupelo Tree Growing Conditions

Native to the Eastern U.S., the tupelo tree is an attractive shade tree that thrives in open areas with plenty of room to spread and grow. Find out about tupelo tree care and maintenance in this article.

Care and Uses for Tupelo Trees

There are many uses for tupelo trees in areas large enough to accommodate their size. They make excellent shade trees and can serve as street trees where overhead wires aren’t a concern. Use them to naturalize low, boggy areas and places with periodic flooding.

Tupelo trees are an important food source for wildlife. Many species of birds, including wild turkeys and wood ducks, eat the berries and a few species of mammals, such as raccoons and squirrels, also enjoy the fruit. White-tailed deer browse on the tree’s twigs.

Tupelo tree growing conditions include full sun or partial shade and deep, acidic, evenly moist soil. Trees planted in alkaline soil die young. Even though they prefer wet soil, they tolerate brief periods of drought. One thing they won’t tolerate is pollution, whether it is in the soil or the air, so it’s best to keep them out of urban environments.

Types of Tupelo Trees

The white tupelo gum tree (Nyssa ogeche ‘Bartram’) is limited by its environment. It has a native range that centers around Northwest Florida in a low area fed by the Chattahoochee River system. Although it grows in other areas as well, you won’t find another region with the concentration of white tupelos equal to this 100-mile long stretch near the Gulf of Mexico. The area is famous for its high-quality tupelo honey.

The most common and familiar tupelo trees are the black gum tupelo trees (Nyssa sylvatica). These trees stand up to 80 feet tall at maturity. They usually have a 1.5- to 3-foot wide, straight trunk, although you may occasionally see a split trunk. The leaves are shiny and bright green in summer, turning several lovely shades of red, orange, yellow and purple in fall. The tree remains interesting in winter because its regular, horizontal branches give it an attractive profile. The birds that visit the tree to clean up the last of the berries also add winter interest.

This week, we continue our look at the 2019 Mississippi Medallion plants with a fantastic Mississippi tree, the tupelo. Tupelo is known botanically as Nyssa sylvatica and is commonly called black tupelo or black gum.

Although it’s a Mississippi native, tupelo has a much wider native range. These trees are found across eastern North America from the northeastern United States and southern Canadian provinces to the states along the Gulf of Mexico. This area corresponds with USDA cold hardiness zones 3 through 9.

Tupelo falls into the category of a midsized deciduous tree with a mature growth potential of 30 to 50 feet tall and 20 to 30 feet wide. Early growth is fairly quick, and young trees have a pyramidal form. As the tree matures, the growth rate slows and the trees develop a more rounded form. The trunk typically remains very straight.

Since tupelo is a common native tree, you may be tempted to go out and dig one up for yourself, but don’t. This tree has a long taproot, and it’s doubtful that it would survive the process. Always buy a container-grown tree from your favorite garden center or nursery.

Some selections are available in the nursery trade, but this tree is not commonly found. Be sure to ask your favorite garden center what varieties they can source for you.

I love the tupelo’s glossy, dark foliage during the summer months, but I always look forward to the fall. Their spectacular reds, oranges and yellows are a welcome sight, often all at the same time on the same tree. This display is very welcome in the state’s typically drab season for fall color, especially in south Mississippi.

The flowers, both male and female, are not showy, but they produce nectar that attracts huge numbers of pollinators. I particularly like tupelo honey collected from the Apalachicola, Florida, area. I haven’t found a Mississippi source of this honey yet, so send me an email if you know of one.

In late summer and early fall, the flowers give way to oval, 1/2-inch-long fruits that mature to a dark blue. The fruit attracts to birds and wildlife.

Tupelo has the potential to be a great landscape tree that casts dense shade. This tree is a good choice for landscapes, as it tolerates growing in the full sun to partial shade and performs well in a wide variety of soil conditions. It flourishes in poorly drained soils — even standing water. After establishment, tupelo is considered drought tolerant. To make if even better, the tree has few pests.

When you consider the dark-green summer foliage and colorful fall display, it sounds like tupelo has it all. But there’s one more attribute that I really like. In the winter, after the leaves have fallen, the gorgeous bark is finally revealed.

The thick, furrowed bark is arranged in scaly-looking plates, each having six sides. The rough and coarse effect only gets better as the tree matures. The bark finally reaches the point where it resembles the skin of an alligator.

So if you’re looking for a dependable, beautiful addition to your landscape, hunt out this native tupelo tree, a 2019 Mississippi Medallion winner.

Black Tupelo

This tree can live over 650 yrs. Valued for its vivid red & purple fall colors, it is used as an ornamental tree in parks. Small greenish-white flowers appear in May to June. Dark blue fall fruit is eaten by many birds. The split resistant wood is used to make mauls, pulleys, and bowls as well as for rough floors and pulpwood.
Nyssa sylvatica, commonly known as black tupelo, tupelo, or black gum, is a medium-sized deciduous tree native to eastern North America from New England and southern Ontario south to central Florida and eastern Texas, as well as Mexico. The common name tupelo is of Native American origin, coming from the Creek words ito ‘tree’ and opilwa ‘swamp’.
It grows to 66–82 ft tall, rarely to 115 ft, with a trunk diameter of 20–39 in, rarely up to 67 in.
The bark is dark gray and flaky when young, but it becomes furrowed with age, resembling alligator hide on very old stems.
The twigs of this tree are reddish-brown, usually hidden by a grayish skin. The pith is chambered with greenish partitions.
The leaves are variable in size and shape. They can be oval or elliptical, and 2–5 in long. When full grown, they are thick, dark green with entire, often wavy margins; very shiny above, pale and often hairy beneath. The foliage turns purple in autumn, eventually becoming an intense bright scarlet or yellow and scarlet.
Very small greenish-white flowers appear in clusters at the top of a long stalk in May to June when leaves are half grown. The fruit is a black-blue, ovoid stone fruit, about 1/3 in long with a thin, oily, bitter-to-sour tasting flesh. Its flowers are an important source of honey and its fruits are eagerly sought by many kinds of birds in the fall.
The limbs of these trees often deteriorate early, and the decayed holes make excellent dens for squirrels, raccoons, Virginia Opossums, as well as nesting sites for honeybees.
The wood of Nyssa sylvatica is heavy, hard, cross-grained, and difficult to split, esp. after drying. Its wood’s resistance to splitting led to its use for making mauls, pulleys, wheel hubs, agricultural rollers, bowls, and paving blocks. It is also used for pallets, rough floors, pulpwood, and firewood.

Forest 43 – Black Tupelo

Nyssa sylvatica

Other common names

Black gum, Pepperidge.

Origin of the species name

Nyssa means water nymph, a reference to the habitat of some of the species; sylvatica is from Latin meaning of the forest habitat.



Date planted

September 2008


Black tupelos have an average lifespan of 250 years.

General description

This is a medium-sized deciduous tree with grey-brown furrowed bark and maturing to have a flat-topped crown. The leaves are shiny green with often wavy margins. They turn purple in autumn, eventually becoming an intense bright scarlet. The fruit is a black-blue, ovoid stone fruit. Height 20m Spread 15m

Natural distribution and habitat

The species is native to eastern North America, from New England and southern Ontario, south to central Florida and eastern Texas where it is found in a variety of habitats throughout its wide range, growing from the creek bottoms of coastal plains, up to drier upper slopes and ridges at altitudes of about 900 metres.

Conservation status

Although it is not internationally classified as threatened, it is registered as a species of concern in southern Canada and in Wisconsin. In Canada this is because of its rarity, its uncertain viable seed source and the resulting decrease in its range and frequency. This is being complicated by the high demand for the land on which it naturally occurs.


The wood is hard, cross-grained, and difficult to split, especially after drying. Because of this it was used to make the hubs of heavy carriage wheels as well as pallets and rough flooring. It was also sometimes called ‘pioneer’s toothbrush’. When a small, brittle twig is broken off sharply, it has a bundle of woody fibres on the end that were once used to clean teeth. It was also called ‘bee-gum’ because hollow trees were used as beehives.

Further reading

Palmer, C (2008) Trees and Forests of North America. Abrams.

Black Tupelo: A Tree for Bees

Nyssa sylvatica

Nyssa—the scientific name of the tree—refers to the Greek water fairy, while the specific epithet sylvatica translates to “of the woods.” It’s said the tree was derived from Greek to mean “tree of the swamp.” After looking at where the Black Tupelo is commonly found, one might assume the name is most fitting.

You may be familiar with one of the numerous other names the tree goes by, including gum tree, sour gum, bowl gum, yellow gum and tupelo gum. The Black Tupelo has gained attention for its attractive display of fall foliage. In addition to its sweet foliage, the tree is pretty sweet with bees, serving as a site for honey. So if you’re planting trees for bees, add this to your list.

Here are a few things to note if you’re considering adding one to your yard.

Environmental Conditions

  • Does best in moist, rich, sandy, silty and well drained soils (hardiness zones 4-9).
  • Slow to medium growing tree, growing up to two feet a year and 30-50 feet at maturity.
  • Prefers full sun but will tolerate partial shade.

Physical Attributes

  • Produces small blue-back berries (or drupes) that some consider litter, popular among birds and other wildlife.
  • Bonus: Bees are attracted to the berries and produce nectar and/or pollen, giving them nutrition in the spring. Bees are more likely to produce a light and mild-tasting honey when combined with other Tupelo species.
  • Has a unique bark resembling alligator hide.
  • Has deep, glossy green leaves that change to bright shades of yellow, orange, bright red, purple and scarlet in the fall.

Tag us in a photo of your Black Tupelo!

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