Harnett County,
North Carolina

Cooperative Extension 

What is black gum?


Question What is a black gum?

Answer Well it could be a condition obtained by eating black jelly beans. It could also be a tree native to the eastern United States. Blackgum is also known as tupelo, black tupelo, tupelogum or sourgum. Yankees call it pepperidge, and the folks at Martha’s Vineyard call it beetlebung. The scientific name for this tree is Nyssa sylvatica.

It seems the Creek and the Greek had the most influence on the name of this tree. The name “tupelo” is the most common name used for this tree. It is believed to be from the Creek Indian language. It means “tree of the swamp.” From the scientific name, Nyssa sylvatica, Nyssa comes from the Greek water nymph Nyssa. Sylvatica means “of the woods.”

As a landscape tree, the tupelo is too often overlooked. It has many positive attributes. Tupelo has no pest problems – disease or insect. It grows well in acid soils. It matures at a medium height (40 ft high by 25 ft wide). It has a very uniform rounded pyramidal shape. Tupelos make excellent shade trees. Their medium sized canopy makes them ideal for smaller properties. The bark of mature trees is also ornamental. It is blocky and looks like an alligator’s back. Female trees produce fruit that birds, squirrels, deer and many other animals love. However, a tupelos best attribute is its fall color.

They transform into their fall colors earlier than most trees. While they may turn yellow or orange, their most common color is vibrant red. The thinness of these red leaves often causes a glowing effect that only a tupelo can produce. It is truly exciting to know such a beautiful tree can live to be 400 years old.

Tupelo fall color is equal to the fall color of a maple tree. While fall color may be similar between a blackgum and a maple, their roots are different. Tupelo trees have more of a tap root. Maple trees are notorious for forming dense root mats close to the soil surface. Tupelo attributes make it a perfect replacement for overused maple trees.

This native tree is also valuable from a forestry perspective. Tupelo wood is hard, cross-grained and difficult to split. It is often used to make pallets, rough floors, pulpwood and tool handles.

Nyssa aquatica is another native species of tupelo that can be found growing in water (very common in eastern North Carolina). The wide bell bottoms of Nyssa aquatica are not used for pallets and tool handles. This wood is highly prized by wood carvers.

For more info on this Greek water nymph of the woods, visit http://www.hort.net/profile/nys/nyssy/ or http://hcs.osu.edu/pocketgardener/source/description/ny_atica.html If you do not have internet access, call us at 910-893-7533 or email me at gpierce@harnett.org

Beetlebung? It turns out tupelo wood was used to make a mallet which was called a beetle. This mallet was used to hammer bungs (which were stoppers) into barrels. Evidently the genius that called mallets and stoppers – beetles and bungs – decided to call tupelo trees beetlebung trees. Make sense? It does in Martha’s Vineyard.

Gary L. Pierce

Horticulture Extension Agent

Harnett County

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