Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is a member of the Cornaceae (formerly Nyssaceae) family. According to GRIN taxonomy, there are six species of this genus. Known by several common names, including black gum, sourgum, pepperidge, black tupelo, and tupelogum, the tree is native throughout the eastern United States. While best growth is in the southeastern part of the country, it is hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 9.

Many references list two varieties: Nyssa sylvatica var. sylvatica (black tupelo) and N. sylvatica var. biflora (swamp tupelo). GRIN, however, separates these into two different species, N. sylvatica and N. biflora. The one in my yard is N. sylvatica or N. sylvatica var. sylvatica, according to how one wishes to interpret the data.

The two species (or varieties) grow in different habitats. Swamp tupelo is common on heavy organic or clay soils of wet bottomlands and often grows in standing water. Trunks may be buttressed. The swamp tupelo grows in association with other species preferring this same habitat, such as swamp maple, buttonbush, buckwheat tree, and others. The black tupelo is usually found on light soils of uplands and stream bottoms. In areas where they intermingle, the two are hard to tell apart.

range map

In my yard the black gum (or black tupelo) is an important shade tree. It grows well under the high shade of longleaf pines and in the light, sandy, acidic soil of my upland lot. Now, while it is still young, it has a lovely pyramidal shape, but I expect it to spread out as it ages.
I appreciate the black gum in my yard because it provides food for many kinds of birds, including permanent residents and migratory species. In addition, it is a great honey tree as evidenced by the abundance of bees buzzing around in spring. Fall color is outstanding, and it is one of the first trees to show fall color. Isolated red leaves appear as early as August. By October, the tree is quite colorful and its leaves are beginning to fall.
Another interesting aspect of its appearance is the right angle at which the limbs emerge from the straight but tapering trunk. Coming straight out as they do and even drooping a little before curving back up to a straight out position, the tree is easily recognized from a distance, especially in winter when leaves are absent. I expect my tree to grow 30 to 50 feet tall and to live for as many as 250 years. Hopefully, because of its long tap root and the strength of the wood, it will still be standing after hurricanes sweep through the area.


Thankfully, the tree does not have branches that extend over my roof. As the tree ages, limbs fall and make hollow sections that are important cavities for small animals, cavity-nesting birds, and bees. For years I have been working to make my landscape more hospitable to pollinators and wildlife, so I believe the black gum was an appropriate selection. Trees are primarily dioecious (separate male and female trees), though each tree has some perfect flowers. I think my tree must be female as evidenced by the berries that form each year.
The tree is not grown for the beauty of its flowers. As a matter of fact, I seldom notice them. Small and greenish white, the flowers are borne on long stalks in clusters. I may not pay them much attention, but the bees certainly know how to find them. The dark blue oval-shaped half-inch long fruits produced in the autumn are more noticeable than the flowers, and birds spot them right away. High in crude fat, fiber, phosphorus, and calcium, they make a nutritious meal for the avian visitors.
Wood of the black gum is heavy and difficult to split. This makes it useful in making such items as pulleys, wheel hubs, and paving blocks. My nephew, who makes wooden bowls and containers, loves to get his hands on a sizeable piece of black gum wood. Some pallets are made of black gum wood, and it can be used as firewood in spite of the difficulty in splitting the wood.
Several cultivars of black tupelo exhibit varying characteristics. ‘Autumn Cascades’ and ‘Pendula’ exhibit a weeping form; Red Rage® has bright red fall foliage and is resistant to the leaf spot that mars the beauty of leaves in the species, and the foliage of ‘Wildfire’ emerges deep red before becoming green in summer and changing to tints of orange-yellow to purplish red in autumn. ‘Zydeco Twist’ has slightly contorted, zigzag branches which add winter interest to black gum’s ornamental attributes.

The black tupelo and swamp tupelo are not the only members of the Nyssa genus. Nyssa ogeche (Ogeechee tupelo) is another native specimen hardy in Zones 7A-9B, stretching from most of the eastern seaboard, the entire southern part of the U.S. and all the way up the western seaboard. It is hard to distinguish from N. aquatica (water tupelo), which has native distributions from FL to east TX and north to VA, TN, KY, IL, and MO. The water tupelo usually grows in standing water in swamps of the lower Mississippi valley and in coastal regions of the southeastern United States. Often it is seen in growing in association with bald cypress and water oaks.

The Nyssa genus offers something for nearly everyone. As a native species, it offers much to native pollinators and small mammals. It makes good sense to include a black gum in either residential or commercial landscapes because of its beautiful shape, its low maintenance, its value to wildlife, and its fabulous fall color.

Images are from PlantFiles except for the range map it is from the U.S. Geological Survey, Public Domain