The black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), also called tupelo or sour gum, is a medium-sized tree with a straight trunk and branches growing horizontally outwards. It is not clear why this native deciduous tree was called a gum tree since it does not produce any gum. The bark is dark gray and flaky when young, but it becomes furrowed with age, resembling alligator hide. Twigs are greenish, becoming red-brown to gray. The leaves are alternate, oval, glossy dark green, with a few teeth along the margin (edge). They vary in size and have smooth edges. They turn a beautiful purple and scarlet in autumn. Fruits are dark blue-black, oval berries that hang on long stocks in groups of up to five. The fruits are very popular with the birds. Decay attacks this tree early and hollow trees are common. Short section of the hollow trunk were used as bee hives and rabbit traps hence the words “bee gums” and ”rabbit gums”. One of the richest honey-producing trees in the world. Although the berry is edible, it is sour. Nyssa was a water nymph of Greek mythology who nursed the god Dionysos back to health. The name Nyssa was given to this tree because it grows in water. In modern Greek nyssa means “duck.” The specific epithet sylvatica means growing i nthe words or forest-loving.
Common name: Black tupelo, Black gum, Sour Gum, Pepperidge
Scientific Name (family and order): Nyssa sylvatica Marsh. (Nyssaceae, Cornales)
Species Origin: Eastern and southern North America
New Jersey Status: USDA Native
Habit: 30 – 50 feet high, with 20 – 30 feet spread. Young trees take on appearance of Q. palustris. Habitat: Zones 4 – 9; under story tree on low wet grounds along streams or in swamps. Moderately shade tolerant.
Trunk/Stem: Stem slender, glabrous grayish to light reddish brown producing numerous short slow growing spurs. Bark dark-gray, cracks and fissures into rough square plates.
Leaves: Deciduous, Simple, Alternate. Fall leave yellow turning orange and burgundy red. Bright green adaxial and matte blue-green abaxial. Ovate to elliptical, edge smooth; cuneate and sometimes rounded at base. Petiole reddish. Pinnate venation
Flowers: Polygamo-Monoecious (predominately unisex flower but with intermixed perfect flowers) flowers appearing with or after the leaves, small greenish yellow; female flowers borne in 2- 4 pedunculated clusters and male in many flower pedunculated solitary or in clusters at end of long peduncle. Flowers small, green and hidden amidst the leaves.
Fruits and seeds: Blueberry-colored, egg-shaped glossy oblong drupe, ½ inch. seed is ribbed.
Although berry is edible, it is sour. Nyssa was a water nymph of Greek mythology who nursed the god Dionysos back to health. The name Nyssa was given to this tree because it grows in water. In modern Greek nyssa means “duck.” The specific epithet sylvatica means growing i nthe words or forest-loving.