Black gum is an underused landscape tree

Trees are beginning to change color. One of the earliest and most spectacular is the black gum. You won’t see much of it in domestic landscapes around here, but maybe you should.

Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) is a common forest tree in most of the eastern US, but it is most abundant in the southeast. It is easily recognized by its branching pattern. Limbs generally are dense, slender and emerge from the trunk at nearly right angles. In fall these early foliage transformers become a glorious deep red.

They are quite resistant to wind damage. Strong breezes blow right through the canopy, as branches are dense in number but don’t fork much. Wider branching angles are also stronger. The wood itself is also strong and the roots are deep.

Smooth edged, egg-shaped leaves emerge singly from the stems. Trees can be quite tall and trunks are usually straight. The overall shape of the canopy is uniform and elongated. Pruning needs are slight and trees tolerate a wide range of soil conditions.

This might lead one to question why they aren’t used in the landscape more. One of the biggest reasons is that once they grow several feet high they become difficult to transplant. Black gums have a tap root type root system and they are difficult to dig up and move once they reach attractive size. This can be overcome by growing trees in containers or planting smaller specimens.

Another name for this tree is sour gum and one taste of the fruit will confirm that. These single-seeded blueberry sized fruits (drupes) are edible, but be ready to add some sugar. They make a pleasant tasting and attractive jelly and often it’s easy to collect enough for a batch. Only some macho survivalist or woodland creature would ever eat a whole lot of them raw. I’ve been out in the woods hunting and thought a few might quench my thirst. They don’t.

Many species of birds and small mammals love these tart fruits. Prior to that, bees and butterflies gorge nectar from the flowers. Black gum is a type of tupelo and tupelo honey is sought after by many honey connoisseurs. It is usually very light-colored and seldom granulates. Sometimes it has a slight greenish hue.

Some may wonder why not all trees bear fruit. Black gums are usually dioecious, meaning there are separate male and female plants. Some trees have perfect flowers. A perfect flower has both male and female parts. Blooms are small, greenish-white and quite inconspicuous. For those sensitive to pollen, it isn’t. Male flowers produce copious amounts and that can bother people with allergies.

In my past, I’ve cut, split and burned a lot of wood. One species I always avoided (except for use as a chopping block) was black gum. It has twisted interwoven wood fibers and is virtually impossible to split with an ax. I’ve broken handles and buried ax heads trying. Even hollow black gum logs won’t split unless you use a hydraulic log splitter. Even at that, I recommend a powerful one.

Leave already changing color and dropping in mid-September

A few fruits resting on the pavement


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I recently retired from teaching high school agriculture after 25 years teaching with my wife. Until recently I wrote a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper ( I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that can be purchased on Amazon in Kindle format. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone (presently out of print), a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death (this one is not yet published). In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books. I also wrote a romance novel titled Virginia. It is available on Amazon and is a different type of romance from a man's perspective.
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3 Responses to Black gum is an underused landscape tree

  1. tonytomeo says:

    I have been saying this for YEARS! Black gum is very rare here. In California, blooming or evergreen trees tend to be more popular. Even though I am a native, I really dig foliar color in autumn. Black gum provides that, even in the mild climate. It does not get big, so works well as a street tree. A few were planted in medians in Oakland years ago, and have are doing very nicely. Yet, no one else seems to have noticed them. Crape myrtles, which I prefer to spell without the first ‘e’, are way too common, and get infested with homopteran insects that drop honeydew on parked cars.

    • tedmanzer says:

      It’s one of the first to turn here and the color is a spectacular deep red. Being a tree with a taproot makes it difficult to transplant in any great size though.

      • tonytomeo says:

        Many of our native species have deep tap roots too, but that does not stop us from growing them in cans. The only black gums we got at the farm were balled and burlapped at a grower near Mount Hood in Oregon. They have done well for us, but we never grew copies of them. There is no demand for them.

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