Description & Overview
Black Gum is a Wisconsin regional native tree, the only species in the Nyssa genus in our state, with much to give beyond its spectacular fall beauty. Although widely distributed across the United States, it is considered a Wisconsin Special Concern Plant by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, as its numbers are in decline. Only one Black Gum has been recorded in the state of Wisconsin, and its origin is somewhat dubious, hence why we refer to it as a “regional native tree.” Regardless, it is underused in the landscape.
You may also know this plant as Tupelo Tree, Black Tupelo, Cotton Gum, or Sour Gum Tree.
A medium-sized tree, Black Gum grows anywhere from 30′ to 50′ tall and 20′ to 30′ wide. Clusters of small greenish-yellow flowers bloom in May/June, followed by juicy, bluish-black fruit that ripens in fall. Black Gum shouldn’t be confused with Sweet Gum (unrelated) whose fruit is spiny and messy. Its lustrous green leaves turn shades of yellow to orange to scarlet and sometimes purple in fall, lighting up the landscape with a vibrant dose of color. The bark of Black Gum is grayish brown to black and furrowed on young trees but matures into dense, nearly black blocks that add texture and interest well into winter.
Black Gum prefers average, medium to wet, acidic soil sited in full sun to part shade. It often struggles with alkaline soil common in southeast Wisconsin, although sometimes they exist in small pockets around swamps, lakeshores, and in the Kettle Moraine. This tree might be better suited for more northern locations within our state where the soil is more acidic.
While its preference is toward moist soil, Black Gum can tolerate some pretty tricky conditions including poorly-drained soil and standing water, and occasional drought and dry, sandy conditions.
Beyond using it as a standalone specimen or street tree, Black Gum can be an effective windbreak if you plant in mass.
Attracting bees with their delicious nectar, consider using it in a native or pollinator-friendly garden.
Moisture-loving Black Gum would make an excellent addition around bodies of water such as lakes, streams, rivers, or ponds, or within lower-lying areas that experience occasional standing water.
Tolerant of aerial salt and adaptable to compacted soils often found in urban areas, Black Gum would be a good parking lot tree. With deep red autumn leaves and sturdier wood less prone to cracking, Black Gum would make a great substitute for the invasive Callery Pear.
With tremendous wildlife value, Black Gum supports myriad creatures. If you like the idea of planting trees that give back to nature, Black Gum is a must. Spring flowers, while diminutive, are coveted by bees seeking nectar. Flowers are abundant and a siren call early in the season. Honey derived from Tupelo trees (Nyssa spp.) is considered to be some of the best and rarest kinds of honey boasting a rich, buttery flavor with traces of cinnamon and a light floral scent.
Black Gum supports the False Underwing Moth (Allotria elonympha), the Azalea Sphinx Moth (Darapsa pholus), and The Hebrew Moth (Polygrammate hebraeicum).
Birds, including Wood Ducks, Wild Turkeys, Starlings, Brown Thrashers, Robins, Wood Thrush, Cedar Waxwings, and Pileated Woodpeckers, enjoy the fall fruit ahead of migration. Black Bear, Gray Fox, Opossum, Raccoons, Fox Squirrels, and Gray Squirrels also enjoy the fruit. White-Tailed Deer will sometimes snack on twigs and foliage if nothing more appetizing is available.
When planted near streams, rivers, and bodies of water, beavers will use the wood of the Black Gum as food and construction materials. Older Black Gum tends to develop deep cavities, which make excellent housing for small mammals and birds, as well as tree frogs, reptiles, and bats.
Black Gum is polygamo-dioecious, meaning that it’s primarily dioecious with male and female reproductive organs on separate plants; however, there is the possibility that perfect flowers exist on male trees explaining the occasional fruit set. In any case, if fruit is desired, it’s best to plant multiples.
Little maintenance is required but if used as a street tree, the lower branches may need to be removed.
The small fruit may be considered a nuisance by some but is usually taken quickly by birds and mammals.
We invite you to check out the Arborist For Hire lookup at the Wisconsin Arborist Association website to find an ISA Certified Arborist near you.
Black Walnut Tolerant: Yes
Deer Resistant: Yes – Young buds may be eaten if nothing else is available
Rabbit Resistant: No
With a deep taproot, Black Gum should be planted in a permanent location as the tree can be difficult to transplant later.
Younger trees and tender buds can be appealing to deer and protection may be a good idea. Learn more about Deer Protection, Buck Rub & Resistant Plants.
Black Gum can be susceptible to cankers which can cause stem dieback. Prune out infected branches to keep the tree healthy.
Leaf spots, rust, tupelo leaf miner, and scale can be minor issues; however, these are primarily cosmetic. Rake up and destroy infected leaves in the fall to reduce issues in the coming year.
The first Nyssa species to be described was a swamp-growing type, thus the genus name Nyssa refers to the mythological Greek water nymph Nyssa or Nysa. The specific epithet sylvatica means “of the woods.” The common name “Tupelo” comes from the Greek word for “swamp.” The common name “Black Gum” refers to its dark leaves.
Van Morrison’s love ballad Tupelo Honey (YouTube.com) was written and recorded in 1971 as a tribute to the happiness he found with his wife Janet Planet, referring to her as incredibly sweet like the honey from the Tupelo tree.
The sturdy hardwood of Black Gum is used to make crates, cross ties, rough floors, pulpwood, tool handles, and chopping blocks.
According to authors Joe Reitus and Salli Haberman in their book “Wild Jams and Jellies: Delicious Recipes Using 75 Wild Edibles,” the fruit of the Black Gum is edible for humans as well as our wildlife friends, in raw and cooked form. Cooking the berries enhances the flavor and can be made into jellies. The sap can also be tapped much like sugar maple. When dried, the sap can be used as chewing gum.
The largest Black Gum tree measured in 2018 can be found in Texas, standing 78 feet tall with a trunk circumference of 21 feet, and a crown spread of 95 feet. Wow!
With its broad site tolerance, Black Gum can be planted with an array of species including American Elm (Ulmus americana), Red Maple (Acer rubrum), American Beech (Fagus grandifolia), Basswood (Tilia americana), Sweet Birch (Betula lenta), Pagoda Dogwood (Cornus alternafolia), Northern White Cedar (Thuja occidentalis), or Tamarack (Larix laricina).
If planted in wetter areas, combine with moisture-loving shrubs including Common Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), Glossy Black Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), American Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis), or Nannyberry Viburnum (Viburnum lentago).
Perennials that could be planted in the area might include Sedges (Carex spp.), Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana), Turtlehead (Chelone spp.), Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum), or Bugloss (Brunnera spp.).