Tupelo Tree: Names, History & Growing Tips

Updated March 8, 2022
Tupelo Trees

Many species of tupelo trees, including the blackgum tree, are native to North America and grow well in nearly every hardiness zone. There are a few things to keep in mind in terms of its soil needs, but if you have the right conditions in your garden, a black gum tree would be a wonderful addition, providing shade, amazing fall color and even food for your local songbirds.

About Tupelo Trees (AKA Black Gum Trees)

Ten species of tupelo trees make up the genus Nyssa. Five species are native to North America, with the most commonly grown being Nyssa sylvatica, which is known as the black gum tree or black tupelo tree. Blackgum is grown for its beautiful foliage, which is a deep, glossy green in spring and summer, and then turns into an absolute eruption of color in autumn. The fall foliage of black gum trees is a mix of purple, orange, scarlet, and yellow, sometimes with all of those colors appearing on the same branch.

In addition to the foliage, tupelo trees also produce small bluish-black fruits, which ripen in late summer and early fall, and are thoroughly enjoyed by songbirds. Their bark is also attractive, with deep ridges along the trunk and branches.

Tupelo trees grow 30 to 50 feet tall, and their canopy has a spread of around 15 to 25 feet, growing in a pyramidal shape.

Tupelo, Nyssa, Blackgum, and Other Names: Where Did They Come From?

Lake Martin landscape with Tupelo trees

Nysseides was the Greek water nymph who gave her name to the genus. The common name, tupelo, comes from two Cree words which mean "tree of the swamp."

The popular name black gum or blackgum came about because of the dark color of the leaves and fruits (drupes) that form in late summer.

It's also sometimes called sourgum because the fruits (which are edible) have a slightly sour taste to them.

Tupelo is also sometimes called "pioneer's toothbrush." When a small, brittle twig is broken off sharply, it has a bundle of woody fibers on the end that was once used to clean teeth. It's also called 'bee-gum' because hollow trees were used as beehives.

On Martha's Vineyard, the tree is called the beetlebung after the local use for this hardwood during the colonial period. The mallets used to hammer bungs or corks into barrels of whale oil were called beetles.

How to Grow Black Tupelo Trees

Autumn Foliage of a Tupelo or Black Gum Tree

The tupelo is not easy to transplant as it has a deep taproot, so it's vitally important to make sure you're planting it in the right spot from the beginning. A spot in full sun is ideal, but it will also tolerate light shade.

Tupelo trees prefer moist, rich, acidic soil. It won't grow well at all in soil that has a high pH level.

This tree also does not handle drought well; it should be watered deeply until it is established. It should also be watered during dry periods even after it is mature. To help retain moisture, it's a good idea to apply a three to four-inch deep layer of mulch around the tree. Just be sure not to push the mulch all the way up against the trunk, since this can cause rot.

Most types of tupelo trees, including blackgum, are hardy in Zones 4 through 9.

Blackgum Pests and Diseases

This tree is not particularly vulnerable to any diseases or pests. It will struggle if it's planted in soil with a high pH level and is subjected to prolonged drought, however.

10 Tupelo Tree Varieties to Grow in Your Garden

Whether you're looking for a large shade tree, a weeping variety, or something in between, there's likely to be a variety of blackgum that will work in your garden. Keep in mind that like any tupelo tree, these don't handle high pH levels well and will need regular watering during dry spells.

'Afterburner'

'Afterburner' blackgum grows to about 35 feet tall with a spread of 20 feet. The new spring foliage emerges as a bright red color, then matures to a deep glossy green before turning vibrant scarlet in the fall. It's hardy to Zone 4b.

'Autumn Cascades'

Hardy in Zones 4 through 9, 'Autumn Cascades' is a unique, weeping form of blackgum that has bright orange and red fall foliage. It grows to about 15 feet tall.

'Firestarter'

'Firestarter' tupelo tree is hardy to Zone 4a and grows up to about 35 feet tall. It has a more upright, narrow growth habit than some other blackgums, and its bright orange-red foliage changes earlier in autumn than that of many other tupelo trees.

'Green Gable'

'Green Gable' tupelo has very dark green, glossy leaves that turn bright scarlet in autumn. It grows 30 to 50 feet tall, with a spread of around 20 feet. It's hardy to Zone 3.

'Red Rage'

'Red Rage' black gum has vibrant red fall color and grows to about 35 feet tall in a pyramidal shape. It's hardy to Zone 5.

'Sheri's Cloud'

If you love variegated foliage, you might want to consider adding a 'Sherri's Cloud' tupelo tree to your landscape. It has medium-green leaves with cream and white variegation. And in fall, the leaves turn a blend of scarlet and bright pink. It's hardy to Zone 5a, and grows to about 40 feet tall at maturity.

'Tupelo Tower'

'Tupelo Tower' black gum has pointed, glossy green leaves through summer, which turn a bright red in autumn. It has an upright, narrow, columnar growth habit and grows to about 40 feet tall and 15 feet wide. It's hardy to Zone 4a.

'White Chapel'

While the leaves of many tupelo trees are deep, dark green, the foliage of 'White Chapel' is bright green. The glossy foliage turns red in fall, and the tree has a strong pyramidal shape, reaching a height of 40 feet. It's hardy in Zones 4 through 9.

'Wildfire'

'Wildfire' has ruby-red foliage in spring, as the leaves are emerging, which turns a deep green in summer, and then a riot of purple, orange, and red in fall. This is a large tree, growing to about 60 feet tall at maturity; it's also a fairly fast grower. 'Wildfire' is hardy in Zones 4 through 9.

'Zydeco Twist'

If you like trees with interesting structure, consider 'Zydeco Twist' blackgum, which grows to around 20 to 25 feet tall and has a contorted, twisted form that adds interest to the garden even in winter. The foliage is medium green, with yellow-orange fall color. It's hardy to Zone 4.

Blackgum Trees for Year-Round Beauty

Whether it's the often-showy new leaves in spring, the glossy green foliage of summer, or the riot of fall color and berries in autumn, blackgum trees provide seasonal interest to the garden all season long. And even in winter, its coarse, almost corrugated-looking bark will continue to provide something interesting and beautiful to enjoy.

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Tupelo Tree: Names, History & Growing Tips