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Nyssa sylvatica

Previously known as:

  • Nyssa canadensis
  • Nyssa caroliniana
  • Nyssa sylvatica var. aquatica
Phonetic Spelling
NIS-a sil-VAT-i-ka
Description

Black gum or black tupelo is a medium-sized, native deciduous tree in the Nyssaceae family. Growing throughout North Carolina in dry upland forests, occasionally in bottomlands, savannas, swamp margins, and upland depressions that are occasionally flooded. It can also be found in the hills and mountains on dry slopes with oaks and hickories. The black gum is grown as an ornamental for its beautiful, scarlet red, fall color and for its shiny, dark green leaves in the summer. 

Its native range includes southern Ontario to the Central and Eastern United States, and Mexico. In the mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia, it has been recently found that a number of the black gum trees have been dying. There was evidence of leaf spots and cankers, but the cause has not been determined.

The genus name, Nyssa, is derived from the word Nyssa or Nysa and refers to a water nymph from Greek mythology. The specific epithet, sylvatica, means "of the woods."

The black gum reaches a mature size of 40 to 70 feet tall but typically reaches 20 to 30 feet in cultivation. Trunk diameter is typically 1 to 2 feet but can reach 4 to 5 feet in taller specimens.  The tree prefers average, medium to wet soils in full sun. It prefers moist, acidic soils, but is adaptive and tolerates poorly-drained soils and standing water, some drought, and some dry soils, at least in the wild. It tolerates many soil types and moisture conditions, but is slow-growing, reaching about 12 to 15 feet in about ten years, growing faster with a good watering and fertilizer schedule

It has a flowering habit that is dioecious, meaning a male and female tree are required to produce fruit. However, some plants have mostly male flowers while others have mostly female flowers, with most plants having a few perfect flowers. This would account for some plants being loaded with egg-shaped blue-black berries, while others may only have a few berries. Female trees need a male pollinator to set fruit. The nectar from the flowers is sought after by bees and tupelo honey is highly prized.

This tree is an excellent choice to support wildlife in the landscape. However, it should be sited in a permanent location because its long taproot makes it difficult to transplant later. It is tolerant of drought, heat, dry, and wet soils, and is moderately salt tolerant, but it is intolerant to alkaline soils. It withstands wind, ice, and salt spray in coastal locations.  

Black gum is a good street tree, specimen, and shade tree. The spectacular fall foliage color will add interest to your landscape.

Seasons of Interest:

Bloom:  Late Spring to Summer                  Foliage:  Spring, Summer, and Fall        Fruits: Late Summer to Fall

Quick ID Hints:

  • deeply furrowed bark
  • leaf shape elliptic to obovate, dark green upper surface, pale green undersides
  • brilliant fall foliage colors of yellow, orange, purple, and red
  • entire margins to Irregular coarse teeth near the tips of some leaves
  • branches held more or less 90 degrees to the main stem
  • bluish-black drupes from September to October
  • chambered pith
  • vascular bundles in the leaf scar

Insects, Diseases, or Other Plant Problems:  Leaf miners and scale are occasional insect pests.  It has some susceptibility to leaf spots, cankers, and rust.

Key to Nyssa

VIDEO created by Grant L. Thompson for “Trees, Shrubs, and Woody Vines for Landscaping” a plant identification course offered by the Department of Horticulture at Iowa State University.

Profile Video:
See this plant in the following landscapes:
Mountain Ridge Top Garden - North Lawn and Upper Drive Border Mountain Ridge Top Garden - East Lawn and Lower Drive Border Mountain Ridge Top Garden - North Lawn and Upper Drive Border Mountain Ridge Top Garden - East Lawn and Lower Drive Border Mountain Ridge Top Garden - North Lawn and Upper Drive Border Entrance Statement, Fescue Grass
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • Afterburner® (‘David Odom’)
    Upright pyramid, 35' tall 20' wide, bright red fall color that stays longer
  • 'Autumn Cascades'
    Female, weeping, orange-red fall color, blue-black fruit
  • Fire Starter® (‘JFS-Red’)
    Narrow oval, upright, 35' tall, 18' wide, early bright red fall color
  • 'Green Gable'
    Upright branching, red fall color
  • 'Miss Scarlet'
    Female, red fall color, abundant blue fruits
  • 'Red Rage'
    Bright red fall color, little leaf spot.
  • 'Red Splyndor'
    Red fall color
  • 'Sheri's Cloud'
    Variegated foliage
  • 'Snow Flurries'
  • 'Sparkler'
  • Swamp Tupelo
    Nyssa sylvatica v biflora - true swamp species found with cypress. Narrow leaves, deeply ridged seeds.
  • var. biflora
    Swamp tupelo, adapted to poor draining soils
  • 'Wildfire'
    New growth bronze-red
  • 'Zydeco Twist'
    Contorted growth
Afterburner® (‘David Odom’), 'Autumn Cascades', Fire Starter® (‘JFS-Red’), 'Green Gable', 'Miss Scarlet', 'Red Rage', 'Red Splyndor', 'Sheri's Cloud', 'Snow Flurries', 'Sparkler', Swamp Tupelo, var. biflora, 'Wildfire', 'Zydeco Twist'
Tags:
#deciduous#shade tree#heat tolerant#drought tolerant#wildlife plant#slow growing#native tree#honey bees#nectar plant#shade garden#riparian#fall interest#street tree#showy fruits#reptiles#honey#food source wildlife#wind tolerant#fire low flammability#NC native#foxes#black bears#bats#wild turkeys#racoons#opossums#deer resistant#glossy leaves#frogs#bears#pollinator plant#Braham Arboretum#leathery leaves#food source summer#NC Native Pollinator Plant#food source herbage#food source nectar#Coastal FAC#Piedmont Mountains FAC#bird friendly#dry soils tolerant#mammals#food source soft mast fruit#fall color red#bee friendly#Audubon#wet soils intolerant#landscape plant sleuths course
 
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • Afterburner® (‘David Odom’)
    Upright pyramid, 35' tall 20' wide, bright red fall color that stays longer
  • 'Autumn Cascades'
    Female, weeping, orange-red fall color, blue-black fruit
  • Fire Starter® (‘JFS-Red’)
    Narrow oval, upright, 35' tall, 18' wide, early bright red fall color
  • 'Green Gable'
    Upright branching, red fall color
  • 'Miss Scarlet'
    Female, red fall color, abundant blue fruits
  • 'Red Rage'
    Bright red fall color, little leaf spot.
  • 'Red Splyndor'
    Red fall color
  • 'Sheri's Cloud'
    Variegated foliage
  • 'Snow Flurries'
  • 'Sparkler'
  • Swamp Tupelo
    Nyssa sylvatica v biflora - true swamp species found with cypress. Narrow leaves, deeply ridged seeds.
  • var. biflora
    Swamp tupelo, adapted to poor draining soils
  • 'Wildfire'
    New growth bronze-red
  • 'Zydeco Twist'
    Contorted growth
Afterburner® (‘David Odom’), 'Autumn Cascades', Fire Starter® (‘JFS-Red’), 'Green Gable', 'Miss Scarlet', 'Red Rage', 'Red Splyndor', 'Sheri's Cloud', 'Snow Flurries', 'Sparkler', Swamp Tupelo, var. biflora, 'Wildfire', 'Zydeco Twist'
Tags:
#deciduous#shade tree#heat tolerant#drought tolerant#wildlife plant#slow growing#native tree#honey bees#nectar plant#shade garden#riparian#fall interest#street tree#showy fruits#reptiles#honey#food source wildlife#wind tolerant#fire low flammability#NC native#foxes#black bears#bats#wild turkeys#racoons#opossums#deer resistant#glossy leaves#frogs#bears#pollinator plant#Braham Arboretum#leathery leaves#food source summer#NC Native Pollinator Plant#food source herbage#food source nectar#Coastal FAC#Piedmont Mountains FAC#bird friendly#dry soils tolerant#mammals#food source soft mast fruit#fall color red#bee friendly#Audubon#wet soils intolerant#landscape plant sleuths course
  • Attributes:
    Genus:
    Nyssa
    Species:
    sylvatica
    Family:
    Nyssaceae
    Uses (Ethnobotany):
    Wood is tough, cross-grained, hard to work, and warps easily. It is often used for crates, cross ties, rough floors, and pulpwood.
    Life Cycle:
    Perennial
    Woody
    Recommended Propagation Strategy:
    Layering
    Seed
    Country Or Region Of Origin:
    Southern Ontario, Central and Eastern United States, and Mexico
    Distribution:
    Native: United States--AL, AR, CT, FL, GA, IL KS, KY, LA, ME, MA, MI, MS, MO, NH, NJ, NY, NC, OH, OK, PA, RI, SC, TN, TX, VT, VA, and WI; Canada--Ontario; Mexico--Mexico Central, Mexico Gulf, Mexico Northeast, and Mexico Southeast.
    Fire Risk Rating:
    low flammability
    Wildlife Value:
    Its young sprouts are eaten by white-tailed deer.  The fruits (berries) are enjoyed by thrushes and other songbirds, wild turkeys, black bear, foxes, raccoons and opossums from August through October. It is one of the most important food sources for fall song bird migration.  The natural hollows that form in the tree are a refuge for reptiles, tree frogs, bats and other wildlife.  The spring flowers are a nectar source for bees.
    Play Value:
    Attracts Pollinators
    Colorful
    Wildlife Food Source
    Particularly Resistant To (Insects/Diseases/Other Problems):
    Resistant to fire. This tree is somewhat resistant to deer damage.
    Edibility:
    Fruit can be eaten raw or cooked. Produces a thin sharply acid pulp that is pleasant to roll in the mouth as a masticatory, it is also used in preserves. The honey bees produce from the flowers of this tree is highly prized.
    Dimensions:
    Height: 40 ft. 0 in. - 70 ft. 0 in.
    Width: 20 ft. 8 in. - 35 ft. 6 in.
  • Whole Plant Traits:
    Plant Type:
    Native Plant
    Tree
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Deciduous
    Habit/Form:
    Columnar
    Irregular
    Open
    Pyramidal
    Rounded
    Spreading
    Growth Rate:
    Medium
    Maintenance:
    Low
    Texture:
    Medium
  • Cultural Conditions:
    Light:
    Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
    Soil Texture:
    Clay
    Loam (Silt)
    Sand
    Soil pH:
    Acid (<6.0)
    Neutral (6.0-8.0)
    Soil Drainage:
    Good Drainage
    Moist
    Occasional Flooding
    Occasionally Dry
    Occasionally Wet
    Available Space To Plant:
    12-24 feet
    24-60 feet
    NC Region:
    Coastal
    Mountains
    Piedmont
    USDA Plant Hardiness Zone:
    4a, 4b, 5b, 5a, 6b, 6a, 7b, 7a, 8a, 8b, 9b, 9a
  • Fruit:
    Fruit Color:
    Black
    Blue
    Fruit Value To Gardener:
    Edible
    Display/Harvest Time:
    Fall
    Summer
    Fruit Type:
    Drupe
    Fruit Length:
    < 1 inch
    Fruit Width:
    < 1 inch
    Fruit Description:
    Female trees only. From late summer to fall, the tree produces green drupes that ripen to bluish-black, round to oval, 3/8 to 1/2-inch long, and clustered on stalks up to 1 1/2 inches long. Thin, bitter-smelling flesh surrounds the small, ribbed seeds. The fruits are edible but sour. Birds and small mammals enjoy the drupes.
  • Flowers:
    Flower Color:
    Green
    White
    Flower Inflorescence:
    Insignificant
    Umbel
    Flower Bloom Time:
    Spring
    Summer
    Flower Size:
    < 1 inch
    Flower Description:
    The tree is dioecious and requires male and female plants to produce fruits. The flowers bloom in the spring from May to June; they are not showy. They are small, greenish-yellow, and occur in small clusters. An individual flower is about 1/8 of an inch in diameter.
  • Leaves:
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Deciduous
    Leaf Color:
    Green
    Leaf Feel:
    Glossy
    Leathery
    Waxy
    Leaf Value To Gardener:
    Showy
    Deciduous Leaf Fall Color:
    Gold/Yellow
    Orange
    Purple/Lavender
    Red/Burgundy
    Leaf Type:
    Simple
    Leaf Arrangement:
    Alternate
    Leaf Shape:
    Elliptical
    Obovate
    Leaf Margin:
    Dentate
    Entire
    Hairs Present:
    Yes
    Leaf Length:
    3-6 inches
    Leaf Width:
    1-3 inches
    Leaf Description:
    Leaves are dark green on the upper surface, paler green on the undersides, 3 to 6 inches long and 1/2 to 3 inches wide, alternate, elliptic to obovate, blunt points, and are pubescent along the veins. Leaves turn yellow, orange, red, or purple in the fall. On sprouts or young trees, the leaves may have a few coarse teeth. The petiole is 0.5 to 1-inch long and reddish
  • Bark:
    Bark Color:
    Black
    Dark Brown
    Light Gray
    Surface/Attachment:
    Furrowed
    Ridges
    Bark Plate Shape:
    Rectangle
    Square
    Bark Description:
    The bark is gray, brown to black, and deeply furrowed to create rectangular or square ridges (cobbled). The bark on younger trees is furrowed between flat ridges and matures into quadrangular blocks that are dense, hard, and nearly black.
  • Stem:
    Stem Color:
    Brown/Copper
    Gray/Silver
    Stem Is Aromatic:
    No
    Pith (Split Longitudinally):
    Chambered
    Stem Description:
    The twig color is gray to brown. The slender limbs grow at right angles to the trunk.
  • Landscape:
    Landscape Location:
    Coastal
    Lawn
    Naturalized Area
    Riparian
    Woodland
    Landscape Theme:
    Drought Tolerant Garden
    Native Garden
    Nighttime Garden
    Pollinator Garden
    Rain Garden
    Water Garden
    Design Feature:
    Shade Tree
    Specimen
    Street Tree
    Attracts:
    Bats
    Bees
    Frogs
    Pollinators
    Reptiles
    Small Mammals
    Songbirds
    Specialized Bees
    Resistance To Challenges:
    Black Walnut
    Deer
    Drought
    Dry Soil
    Fire
    Heat
    Pollution
    Salt
    Wet Soil
    Wind