As its genus name implies (in mythology, Nyssa was a water nymph), black gum, AKA tupelo, is an excellent choice for wetter areas. In April-June, greenish-white flowers bearing copious amounts of nectar attract numerous types of pollinators. Flowers are followed by dark blue drupes that lure flocks of birds in fall. If that’s not enough to convince wildlife enthusiasts to plant black gum, as the trees mature, the trunk becomes a living, hollowed-out refuge for wildlife. Horizontal spreading branches bear glossy leaves in summer that turn a brilliant red/orange/purple before most trees in fall.
Fruit production depends on the amount of male, female, or perfect flowers on each tree. The trees are polygamodioecious, meaning some trees have mostly male flowers while others have mostly female flowers. Perfect flowers, which have both male and female structures, may also appear. Only the female and perfect flowers produce fruit. For most reliable fruiting, plant at least two trees no more than 100 feet apart.
Native habitats include low, wet woods or bottomlands, swamp and pond edges, rocky wooded slopes, ravines, and upland forests. Makes an excellent ornamental shade tree and grows well in moist woodlands, rain gardens, or in low areas with occasional flooding. Needs plenty of space. Choose planting site carefully, as its deep taproot makes for a difficult transplant.
Grows in full sun or part shade.
Grows 30-50’ tall and 20-30’ wide; occasionally reaches 90’ tall.
Prefers moist, acidic soil; adapts to average-to-wet gravelly, sandy, and clay soils. Tolerates drought, once established.
Male flowers are denser than female flowers, which are followed by oval, 1/2", dark blue fruits.
Elliptical, dark green leaves are 3-6” long and have finely toothed margins.
Trunk is typically 1 to 2 feet in diameter. Light gray, furrowed bark matures to dark gray bark resembling alligator hide.
Black gum hosts 26 species of lepidoptera, including Hebrew moth, false underwing moth, and azalea sphinx (pictured here in order, preceded by their caterpillars). The larvae of long-horned beetles bore through the wood of dead or dying trees. Black gum fruits are highly nutritious and are considered an important food source for songbirds as they begin fall migration. A wide range of birds consume the fruits, including robins, woodpeckers, mockingbirds, brown thrashers, thrushes, and flickers. The abundant nectar attracts a wide variety of native and honey bees. Young seedlings and foliage, a preferred food source for deer, should be protected for several years. As the trunk hollows out, black gum’s wildlife value increases as owls, birds, raccoons, bats, and many other animals begin using the cavities for shelter. Traditionally, the hollow logs were cut into sections and used to house honey bee colonies.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Cherokees used various parts of black gum to treat parasitic worms, diarrhea, pulmonary tuberculosis, and gunshot wounds. The inner bark was used to induce vomiting, while an infusion of bark was used during childbirth.
Tupelo honey, made from the honey of several tupelo species, is prized for its unique, mild-tasting flavor.
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