Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), or black tupelo, is a medium to large growing deciduous tree native to USDA zones 4 to 9. Few trees are able to compete with black gum in regard to summer and fall color. In September, its dark green foliage gives way to intense red fall color with hues of orange, yellow, and purple, which makes it a wonderful selection for home landscapes.
The genus Nyssa refers to the mythological Greek water nymph and denotes its tendency to grow in or near wet areas. Throughout its native range, black gum is typically found along streams, swamp margins, and on upland sights. Though it prefers moist, well-drained soils, black gum will grow on drier sites, giving it some drought tolerance.
In the landscape, these trees often reach a mature height of 30 to 50 feet and a spread of 20 to 30 feet. Young trees tend to be somewhat pyramidal in shape and eventually may form a conical or oval-shaped crown as they mature.
Slow to moderate rate (12 to 15 feet over 10 to 15 years). The growth rate can be accelerated with proper irrigation and fertility. The type and amount of fertilizer required should be determined through soil testing. For more info on how to test soil, see HGIC 1652 Soil Testing. Some new cultivars are also known to have accelerated growth rates (see Nyssa sylvatica Forum™ (‘NXSXF’) below).
Black gum has several features that make it an excellent landscape tree. The alternately arranged, 3-inch long, dark green, glossy leaves and attractive fall color are perhaps the most distinctive features. The magnificent fall color is enhanced by siting trees in locations with more direct sunlight. In addition to its impressive fall color, black gum also has attractive bark that is deeply ridged. The bark is often said to resemble alligator skin.
Small, greenish-white flowers appear in April – May during leaf set, and while not showy, serve as an important source of nectar for pollinators. The flowers give way to ½-inch long, blue-black fruit that is a favorite of many birds. Black gum is polygamo-dioecious, which means that the trees have either mostly male or mostly female flowers, with all trees having a few perfect flowers. Because of this, multiple trees may be needed for fruit set.
Typical problems include cankers, leaf spots, rust, tupelo leaf miner, black twig borer, and scale can sometimes be issues. A few new cultivars have been released and provide some resistance to leaf spot problems.
Black gum is best grown in areas with acidic, medium to wet, well-drained soils and full sun to part shade. Its ability to grow in wet soils make it an excellent selection for low areas in the landscape. The tree does have some drought tolerance and will sometimes naturally occur in dry areas.
Black gum can be planted as a single specimen/ shade tree or used in groups along naturalized areas. When planted in groups, the vibrant red fall colors with hues of purple, orange, and yellow create a stunning image for spectators. Black gum can be used as a street tree in median plantings, but it tends not to do well in areas with high pollution. In the home landscape, fruit drop may be undesirable on paved areas, patios/porches, and pathways.
The dark blue fruit of N. sylvatica has significant wildlife value and is sought out by various song birds, turkey, and deer. Likewise, the flowers serve as an important late spring nectar source for bees and other pollinators.
- Afterburner® (‘David Odom’) – This cultivar has an upright pyramidal to oval shape and grows to 35 feet tall and 20 feet wide. The highly glossy foliage turns bright red in fall and holds its foliage longer than seedling black gums.
- ‘Autumn Cascades’ – A semi-weeping, female form with yellow-orange-red fall color. Attractive blue to black fruit. 30 to 40 feet high and wide.
- Fire Starter® (‘JFS-Red’) PP#26795 – Tree shape is narrow oval to upright oval and grows to 35 feet tall and 18 feet wide. Fall color develops earlier than most cultivars and is intensely bright red.
- Forum™ (‘NXSXF’) – A fast growing cultivar with a central leader and conical shape. Dark green leaves give way to yellow-orange-red fall color. 40 to 50 feet tall and 20 to 25 feet wide.
- Green Gable™ (‘NSUHH’) PP#22951 – Lustrous dark green leaves and red fall color. Dense/ tight habit when young. Foliage is not as susceptible to leaf spot. 40 to 50 ft. tall and 30 to 40 feet wide.
- Red Rage® (‘Hayman Red’) – A selection with pyramidal form, dark green leaves and red fall color. High resistance to leaf spot. 40 to 50 feet tall and 20 to 35 feet wide.
- ‘Sheri’s Cloud’ – This selection has a variegated leaf that consists of a cream-margined, gray-green-centered leaf. 40 to 50 feet tall and 30 to 40 feet wide.
- Tupelo Tower™ (‘WFH1’) PP#22976 – Tree form is columnar reaching 30 to 40 feet tall and 10 to 15 feet wide. Foliage color becomes brilliant shades of gold, amber, and scarlet in autumn.
- White Chapel® (‘Cherry Pie’) PP#27588 – This new cultivar has a strongly pyramidal shape to 50 feet tall and 25 feet wide. Fall color is a brilliant red.
- ‘Wildfire’ – Bronze-red to reddish purple new shoots. Very attractive in spring and with new growth. 30 to 50 feet tall and 20 to 30 feet wide.
- ‘Zydeco Twist’ – A selection with strongly twisting and contorted stems. Foliage is a shiny green color and is less susceptible to leaf spot. 30 to 40 feet tall and wide.
Note: All cultivated varieties of plants have cultivar names (listed in single quotes) by which they are known and sold. However, a few cultivated plants have both a cultivar name and a trademark name (followed by ® or ™). For these plants, the trademark name is the recognized name for consumers to use in searching for and buying the plants. For trademarked plants, the cultivar name will be either a few letters & numbers or a nonsensical name in single quotes that is completely unimportant for the consumer or landscaper. They are included here simply because they are the official assigned cultivar names. Plant breeders do this so that if someone propagates the plant without permission, they will have to call it by the cultivar name, which no one will recognize.
Originally published 10/18