Black Gum Nyssa sylvatica is one of my favorite choices for a shade tree. Here in Georgia people plant seemingly miles of maples as shade trees. Now there is nothing wrong with native maple. They are beautiful, grow quickly, the fall color is stunning and they have a lovely shape. There are just too many of them and they don’t have high wildlife value. If we are going to plant a row of trees, why not have every other one be a Black gum Nyssa sylvatica? Black gum produces outstanding fall color, has a lovely shape, is easy to grow and has high wildlife value. It is an important food source for pollinators and birds. Plus it is just a gorgeous tree. I am all about creating spaces in residential and public areas which have beautiful landscape design and habitat combined.
Nyssa sylvatica is also known as black tupelo, tupelo, black gum, or sour gum. It is a handsome tree with a pyramidal shape when young that will become rounded as it matures. The straight trunk is perfect for both residential or commercial landscapes as it may provide space underneath the canopy. It is native to much of the eastern United States (USDA Plant Profile) and can be found growing in many soil conditions from wetlands to dry rocky slopes. Typically it grows 30′ – 50′ under urban conditions but can reach 90′ in the wild.
Flowering occurs May – June and while the blooms are insignificant, they are an important nectar source for bees and other pollinators. Black Gum Nyssa sylvatica is considered a ‘honey tree’ and highly attractive to bees in particular but benefits other insects as well. The flowers are polygamo-dioecious, so any given tree will be primarily male or female however most have flowers of both sexes on the same tree. This can guarantee pollination but does mean that primarily female trees will produce more berries than the primarily male specimens.
In spring, obovate to elliptic pale green leaves appear. They grow to 5′ and have a lighter underside. The texture is smooth and waxy, providing the overall visual appeal with a depth not always seen in larger trees. The above photo is Nyssa sylvatica ‘Wildfire’ which has orange-red new growth, changing to green as it matures. In spring the entire tree is covered in red tips which is visible from a distance. Another ‘plus’ on the ornamental side.
The fall color is nothing short of spectacular. Scarlet, bright yellow, orange, scarlet and purple all appear on the same tree.
Also in fall come the berries which are so important to wildlife. The blue black, oval, 1/2″ fruit is eaten by a long list of eastern birds which migrate within the trees range. American Robin, Blue Jay, Brown Thrasher, Cedar Waxwing, Eastern Bluebird, Eastern Phoebe, Gray Catbird, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Hermit Thrush, Northern Cardinal, Northern Flicker, Northern Mockingbird, Pileated Woodpecker, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Scarlet Tanager, Swainson’s Thrush, Wood Thrush and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker are a few. The berries are eaten quickly and are small enough not to make a mess under the tree.
Black Gum Nyssa sylvatica is easy to grow in full sun to part shade. Water requirements are medium and it is adaptable to either wet or dry locations, however will prefer moist. I have several mature specimens growing in very dry oak woods where they doing fine. Like most trees, watering when young is important to help Nyssa sylvatica develop a deep root system to avoid suckering later. Nyssa sylvatica does have a deep taproot which can make transplanting ball and burlap trees tricky, however larger saplings are becoming more readily available in nurseries. The deep taproot has the benefit of making Nyssa sylvatica an appropriate street tree if properly developed when young as the roots will not push through sidewalks and lawns. Of my nine Nyssa sylvatica, one is more shallow rooted than the rest and will send out suckers in the spring. The others do not.
An important issue when considering black gum is that it prefers an acidic soil. Alkaline pH soils can cause slow growth and foliage chlorosis. It has few pests and diseases with leaf spot being the most common. It is also not a ‘messy’ tree and easy to care for in a yard setting.
When you consider how many bird and insect species would benefit from planting a black gum it makes sense to use it in residential and commercial landscapes over a less beneficial genus. Nyssa sylvatica will still provide a beautiful shape, be low maintenance, and have fantastic fall color. It is readily available within the nursery trade.
Black Gum Nyssa sylvatica is a native plant alternative to some of the most dread invasive trees: Chinese tallow tree Sapium sebiferum, Norway maple Acer platanoides, Sycamore maple Acer pseudoplatanus, and Callery pear/Bradford pear Pyrus calleryana.
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