Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica, Black Tupelo)

Blackgum, Black Gum, Black Tupelo, Common Tupelo Tree, Cotton Gum, Nyssa, Pepperidge, Sour Gum, Tupelo

Nyssa sylvatica is a deciduous tree native to eastern regions of North America. It is a medium-sized tree, often cultivated as an ornamental in parks due to the beautiful scarlet color of its autumn leaves.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Nyssa sylvatica, commonly known as tupelo, black tupelo, black gum or sour gum, is a medium-sized deciduous tree native to eastern North America from the coastal Northeastern United States and southern Ontario south to central Florida and eastern Texas, as well as Mexico.

Nyssa sylvatica grows to 20–25 meters (66–82 ft) tall, rarely to 35 meters (115 ft), with a trunk diameter of 50–100 centimeters (20–39 in), rarely up to 170 centimeters (67 in). These trees typically have a straight trunk with the branches extending outward at right angles. 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 of this species are variable in size and shape. They can be oval, elliptical, or obovate, and 5–12 cm (2 – 4.5 in) long. They have lustrous upper surfaces, with entire, often wavy margins. The foliage turns purple in autumn, eventually becoming an intense bright scarlet. Deer are extremely fond of the leaves on seedlings and saplings, to the point where large populations of them can make establishment of the tree almost impossible. For comparison, mature trees are largely left alone.

The flowers are very small, in greenish-white in clusters at the top of a long stalk and a rich source of nectar for bees. They are often dioecious so a male and female tree in proximity is required to set seed, however, many trees are also polygamo-dioecious, which means they have both male and female flowers on the same tree. The fruit is a black-blue, ovoid stone fruit, about 10 mm long with a thin, oily, bitter-to-sour tasting flesh and very popular with small bird species. There are from one to three fruits together on a long slender stalk. They are a valuable energy food for birds, especially the American robin.

Nyssa sylvatica forms a large deep taproot when young that makes transplanting difficult. Because of this, it is fairly uncommon in cultivation and the nursery trade.

Additional characteristics include:

  • Bark: Light reddish brown, deeply furrowed and scaly. Branchlets at first pale green to orange, sometimes smooth, often downy, later dark brown.
  • Wood: Pale yellow, sapwood white; heavy, strong, very tough, hard to split, not durable in contact with the soil. Used for turnery. Sp. gr., 0.6353; weight of cu. ft. 39.59.
  • Winter buds: Dark red, obtuse, one-fourth of an inch long. Inner scales enlarge with the growing shoot, becoming red before they fall.
  • Leaves: Alternate, often crowded at the end of the lateral branches, simple, linear, oblong to oval, two to five inches (127 mm) long, one-half to three inches (76 mm) broad, wedge-shaped or rounded at base, entire, with margin slightly thickened, acute or acuminate. They come out of the bud conduplicate, coated beneath with rusty tomentum, when full grown are thick, dark green, very shining above, pale and often hairy beneath. Feather-veined, midrib and primary veins prominent beneath. In autumn they turn bright scarlet, or yellow and scarlet. Petioles one-quarter to one-half an inch long, slender or stout, terete or margined, often red.
  • Flowers: May, June, when leaves are half grown. Polygamodiœcious, yellowish green, borne on slender downy peduncles. Staminate in many-flowered heads; pistillate in two to several flowered clusters.
  • Calyx: Cup-shaped, five-toothed.
  • Corolla: Petals five, imbricate in bud, yellow green, ovate, thick, slightly spreading, inserted on the margin of the conspicuous disk.
  • Stamens: Five to twelve. In staminate flowers exerted, in pistillate short, often wanting.
  • Pistil: Ovary inferior, one to two-celled; style stout, exerted, reflexed above the middle. Entirely wanting in sterile flowers. Ovules, one in each cell.
  • Fruit: Fleshy drupe, one to three from each flower cluster. Ovoid, two-thirds of an inch long, dark blue, acid. Stone more or less rigid. October.

Nyssa sylvatica is found in a wide range of climates, due to its extensive distribution. It commonly grows in both the creek bottoms of the southern coastal plains, to altitudes of about 900 meters (3,000 feet) in the Southern Appalachians. These trees grow best on well-drained, light-textured soils on the low ridges of second bottoms and on the high flats of silty alluvium. In the uplands it grows best on the loams and clay loams of lower slopes and coves.

The species occurs in 35 different forest cover types. When found on drier upper slopes and ridges, it is seldom of log size or quality.

In Mexico it is a common species in montane cloud forests, particularly in moist or riparian habitats, between 1,000 and 2,200 meters elevation.

II. How to Grow and Care


This tree can grow in full to partial sunlight. That means it should get at least four hours of direct sunlight on most days. 

Temperature and Humidity

Black gum trees grow naturally in a variety of climates and are hardy both to cold and to heat. Humidity usually isn’t an issue for the tree, as long as there is good air flow among its branches. Otherwise, high humidity and cramped branches can lead to fungal growth.


Black gum requires plenty of water when it is young. Long and deep watering is the rule, so use a sprinkler on the surrounding soil for three-quarters of an hour. Adult trees only require watering in times of drought, and then the same irrigation method is necessary once per week.


The black gum tree is tolerant of various soil types. It prefers loamy soil with an acidic pH and good drainage. But it can handle a spot with poor drainage and even some standing water. It is moderately tolerant of clay soil, as well as gravelly or sandy soil.


Black gum benefits from the application of fertilizer once a year in the fall. Quantity is important: 2 cups of fertilizer should be used for every inch of trunk width (measure the trunk at a height of 1.2 m). Spread the fertilizer around the tree to one-and-a-half times the spread of its branches.


Black gum tree doesn’t require much pruning beyond trimming branches to retain your desired shape and removing any parts that are damaged, diseased, or dead. If any of the lower branches are drooping downward, you can prune those off if you wish to make walking around the tree easier. The best time for general pruning is in the late fall or the late winter after the coldest weather has passed, though you can cut out problematic branches at any point.


Propagating black gum tree from cuttings is difficult. Growing it from the seed yields unpredictable results—you won’t necessarily get the same attractive fall color that you admire in the parent tree. In addition, the propagation of trademarked cultivars is prohibited. Therefore, if you want to plant a black gum tree, it is recommended to source it from a nursery.

Potting and Repotting 

Black gum tree is a large landscape tree with a long tap root that is not suitable for container growing.


The tree is hardy to USDA zone 3 and does not require winter protection.

Pests and Diseases

Black gum tree typically doesn’t have any serious issues with pests or diseases. Keep an eye out for leaf spots, cankers, leaf miners, and scale.2 Look for discolored or damaged foliage, as well as abnormal-looking bark and branches.

III. Uses and Benefits 

  • Cultivation

Nyssa sylvatica is cultivated as an ornamental tree in parks and large gardens, where it is often used as a specimen or shade tree. The tree is best when grown in sheltered but not crowded positions, developing a pyramidal shape in youth, and spreading with age. The stem rises to the summit of the tree in one tapering unbroken shaft, the branches come out at right angles to the trunk and either extend horizontally or droop a little, making a long-narrow, cone-like head.

The leaves are short-petioled and so have little individual motion, but the branches sway as a whole. The spray is fine and abundant and lies horizontally so that the foliage arrangement is not unlike that of the beech (Fagus). Its often spectacular autumnal coloring, with intense reds to purples, is highly valued in landscape settings. It is claimed to be the most fiery and brilliant of the ‘brilliant group’ that includes maple, dogwood, sassafras, and sweet gum, as well as various species of tupelo.

In the UK the cultivar ‘Wisley Bonfire’ has gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit.

  • Honey production

Nyssa sylvatica is a major source of wild honey in many areas within its range. Hollow sections of black gum trunks were formerly used as bee gums by beekeepers.

  • Wood

The wood of Nyssa sylvatica is heavy, hard, cross-grained, and difficult to split, especially after drying. This resistance to splitting led to its use for making mauls, pulleys, wheel hubs, agricultural rollers, bowls, and paving blocks. The wood is also used for pallets, rough floors, pulpwood, and firewood. Since the wood is very tough, resistant to wear, it has been used for shuttles in weaving. Because it is resistant to wear and very readily accepts creosote-based preservatives it is considered to be a premier wood for making railroad ties. The wood’s resistance to wear and some acids has led to its use as factory flooring.

  • Teeth-cleaning twig

It was also used traditionally by Native Americans as a teeth-cleaning twig. It also was used for dipping snuff.

Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica, Black Tupelo) Details

Common name Blackgum, Black Gum, Black Tupelo, Common Tupelo Tree, Cotton Gum, Nyssa, Pepperidge, Sour Gum, Tupelo
Botanical name Nyssa sylvatica
Plant type Native Plant
Hardiness zone 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Growth rate Medium
Harvest time Fall
Height 40 ft. 0 in. - 70 ft. 0 in.
Width 40 ft. 0 in. - 70 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition Clay
Flower color Green
Leaf color Green