Horticultural Highlight: Nyssa sylvatica, Tupelo, or Black Gum

September 30, 2012

When autumn gathers, the tree

That the leaves sang

Reddens dark slowly, then, suddenly free,

Turns like a key,

Opening air where they hang…

– Annie Finch

The autumn foliage of Nyssa sylvatica, Tupelo, or Black Gum, reliably turns a gorgeous scarlet, and crimson, that rivals any other New England native, or introduced tree, for “best fall color.” With a natural occurrence from southwestern Maine, and New York, to central Michigan, south to Missouri, eastern Texas, and southern Florida, this tree adapts to numerous habitats, and climates. Its scientific name includes Nyssa, a beautiful water nymph, from classical Greek mythology, and sylvatica, which is Latin, for “of the forest.” There are approximately ten species, in the genus Nyssa, within the botanical family Nyssaceae.

The leaves are 3 to 6-inches-long, 1 ½- 3-inches-wide, and may be ovate, elliptic, or even oval-shaped. During the growing season, they are a lustrous, green, and often have a red petiole (leaf-stem). The tree produces small, inconspicuous, green, flowers in the spring. If successfully fertilized, these flowers will produce a ½”-long, bluish drupe, ripening in September/October. This fruit is eaten by many species of birds, including cedar waxwings, cardinals, scarlet tanagers, hermit thrush, brown thrashers, Baltimore orioles, eastern bluebird, blue jays, mockingbirds, robins, northern flicker, pileated woodpecker, yellow-bellied sapsucker, rose-breasted grosbeaks, crows, grackles, and others. According to one study, these fruits have a fat content of more than 14 percent, making them ideal food, for pre-migratory gorging. Hence, we often see little of the fruit remaining on these trees, which when present, does provide a beautiful, blue juxtaposition, to the brilliant red foliage.

Numerous fine writers and plants-people have extolled the virtues of these under-appreciated trees, but, here we turn to George Barrell Emerson (1797-1881), former president, of the Boston Society of Natural History, and author of the classic, 1846, Report on the Trees and Shrubs Growing Naturally in the Forests of Massachusetts. Emerson, who later played a key role in the 1872 creation of the Arnold Arboretum, writes, “…There is a tree of this kind in Cohasset… which we rode twenty-five miles expressly to see. It is richly worth a much longer journey. It stands in a lone pasture, half a mile or more eastward from a place called the Gulf. At the surface, just above the roots, it is eleven feet in circumference, and it is nine feet and two inches, up to the larger branches, which begin at about seven feet from the ground. The trunk loses little of its diameter for nearly twenty feet, although in that space, twenty large branches, and many small ones put out. These are very large and project horizontally on every side to a great distance, with an air of mighty strength and power of resistance…. The height is forty or fifty feet…. A striking circumstance in this tree is the fact that the enormous horizontal branches push out boldly seaward as in any other direction, though the north-east wind sweeps from the Bay in this quarter with a violence which has bent almost every other tree towards the land.” Later on, Emerson added,…”The tupelo… formerly grew in large numbers, in a swamp in Cambridgeport, now become a thickly settled part of the town; and there are still to be seen some very remarkable specimens on the lane leading up to the residence of the late Andrews Norton, not very far from the Harvard College.”

Of more contemporary interest, there are several Nyssa sylvatica, Tupelo, or Black Gum, growing in southern New Hampshire, that have been scientifically determined to be the oldest known hardwood trees, at 600 years old, in North America.

On your next visit to Mount Auburn, look for several of our Nyssa sylvatica, with their blazing red foliage on Narcissus Path, Ailanthus Path, Cuphea Path, Rosebay Avenue, Birch Garden, Andromeda Path, Flicker Path, Warbler Path, Field Road, Elder Path, Acacia Path, Columbine Path, and Elm Avenue.

About the Author: Jim Gorman

Visitor Services Assistant

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