by David Schroeder
Black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), also known as blackgum, sourgum or pepperidge, is one of the least known trees in Connecticut’s forests probably because there are not a lot of them and they often grow in seldom visited wet areas. Also, they do not have any outstanding characteristics that make them easily recognizable. There is no good explanation for the common name black gum since no “gum” exudes from the tree even when it is injured. The scientific name makes more sense because Nyssa is a name for a mythological water nymph and sylvatica means that it is of the forest.
Black tupelo is shade tolerant and is mostly found bordering or in wet sites. It has the ability to grow on relatively dry soils, but is seldom found on these sites in Connecticut . A medium size tree up to 70 feet and 3 feet d.b.h. it has the potential to reach over 100 feet on good sites and live to the ripe old age of 500 years.
Identification of black tupelo is rather difficult except for one characteristic, which is most obvious in the winter. The smaller branches or twigs tend to come off at right angles from the larger branches. This is also the case for most of the large branches coming off the main stem. The bark on older trees is very blocky and suggests, at least to some observers, the hide of an alligator.
Uses of black tupelo have been many and varied, but because of the twisted and interlocking nature of the fibers it has seldom been used for lumber. Boards tend to warp unless kiln dried. Old timers splitting rails for fences soon found out it was a waste of time trying to split black gum. It is extremely tough so it was used to make maul heads, wedges, gunstocks, chopping blocks and bowls. Older trees, particularly in the south, have extensive “heartrot” which provides excellent sites for the cavity nesters. Trees with hollow centers were cut into sections and used to house bees (bee gums) or on occasion, rabbits.
Although the fruit are small, 3/8 inch in length they are eaten by a wide variety of critters including black bear, foxes, pileated woodpeckers, mockingbirds, robins, and brown thrashers to name a few. Deer browse the twigs and foliage.
Although not commonly used as an ornamental, black tupelo makes an excellent shade tree. It has a glossy green leaf that turns red or burgundy in the fall. The fact that it provides food for a wide variety of birds adds to the attractiveness.
This article originally appeared in the March 2004 ECFLA/WDLT Newsletter.