Black Tupelo
Nyssa sylvatica
Tupelo family (Nyssaceae)

Description: This tree is 40-80' tall at maturity, forming a single trunk about 1-3' across and a pyramidal-oblongoid to oblongoid crown. Branches are more or less horizontal, although lower branches tend to droop downward toward the base of the crown; the latter are usually crooked. Occasionally, a trunk will become forked and the crown will be more irregular and open. Trunk bark is gray or gray-brown and irregularly furrowed with scaly plates. On very old trees, these plates become thick, rectangular, and block-like. Branch bark is gray and more smooth, while twigs are brown, glabrous, and rather stout. Short spur twigs are rather common. Alternate leaves are produced along the twigs and young shoots; they are 2-5" long and 1-3" across, elliptic to broadly elliptic in shape, somewhat leathery in texture, and smooth to slightly wavy along their margins. On rare occasions, some trees may produce leaves with a few large blunt teeth. The upper leaf surface is medium green, shiny, and hairless, while the lower surface is dull pale green and either hairless or pubescent. Venation is pinnate. The slender petioles are -" long, whitish green to red, and either hairless or pubescent.

Black Tupelo is polygamo-dioecious, producing male and either female or perfect flowers on separate trees. Male flowers are produced in small umbels on slender peduncles about -1" long. Individual male flowers are about 1/8" (3 mm.) across, consisting of a shallow green calyx with barely discernible teeth, insignificant green petals, and 5-10 spreading stamens with long filaments. Sessile clusters of 2-5 female flowers are produced on slender peduncles about -2" long. Individual female or perfect flowers are about 1/8" (3 mm.) across, consisting of a tubular green calyx with 5 tiny teeth along its upper rim, insignificant green petals, an ovary with a single style, and 0-10 erect stamens on short filaments; these stamens are often abortive. The blooming period occurs during late spring as the leaves develop. Female and perfect flowers are replaced by individual or sessile clusters of 2-3 drupes on long slender peduncles. Individual drupes are up to " long and ovoid in shape, becoming blue-black at maturity. Each drupe has thin bitter-sour flesh and a single hard seed (stone) that is light tan, up to 1/3" (8 mm.) long, and ellipsoid-oblongoid in shape with 10-12 faint longitudinal grooves. The deciduous leaves are quite colorful during the autumn, becoming golden yellow, orange, scarlet, or purple, sometimes with blotches of green.

Cultivation: The preference is full sun to light shade, moist to mesic conditions, and soil consisting of loam, silt-loam, or clay-loam. The growth rate and longevity of this tree are moderate. With the except of heart rot occurring in older branches and adjacent areas of the trunk, it has relatively few problems with insects or disease. Flooded conditions are tolerated only if they persist for a short period of time.

Range & Habitat: The native Black Tupelo is occasional in southern Illinois and uncommon along the easternmost tier of counties within the state. Illinois lies along the northwestern range limit of this species. Habitats are variable, consisting of rocky upland woodlands, wooded slopes, upland sand flats, floodplain woodlands, higher ground and edges of swamps, and edges of shaded seeps and springs. Trees on dry upland areas tend to be smaller in size than those growing on moist fertile ground. Black Tupelo benefits from disturbance that reduces competition from taller canopy trees. While individual trees are frequently top-killed by fire, new seedlings develop in response to greater light levels.

Faunal Associations: Information about insect pollinators of the flowers is scant, although honeybees and undoubtedly other bees are attracted to the nectar of the flowers. Compared to other tree species, Black Tupelo is a host plant of relatively few insects. These species include caterpillars of several moths that feed on the foliage: Allotria elonympha (False Underwing), Antispila nysaefoliella (Tupelo Leafminer), Comachara cadburyi (Cadbury's Mystique), Darapsa pholus (Azalea Sphinx), Malacosoma disstria (Forest Tent Caterpillar), Paectes ostoloides (Large Paectes), Polygrammate hebraeicum (The Hebrew), and Probole alienaria (Alien Probole). The plant bugs Lygocoris nyssae and Lepidopsallus nyssae feed on this tree, as does an aphid, Aphis coreopsidis, of which Black Tupelo is a winter host. The larvae of the following long-horned beetles bore through the wood of mostly dead or dying trees: Aegomorphus morrisi, Charisalia americana, and Trigonarthris proxima.

Among vertebrate animals, such birds as the Wood Duck, Wild Turkey, Northern Mockingbird, Starling, Brown Thrasher, Robin, Wood Thrush, and Pileated Woodpecker eat the oily fruits during autumn; see the Bird Table for a more complete list of these species. Some mammals also feed on the fruits, including the Black Bear, Gray Fox, Opossum, Raccoon, Fox Squirrel, and Gray Squirrel. When Black Tupelo grows near bodies of water, the wood is used as a source of food and construction materials by the Beaver, while White-Tailed Deer browse on the twigs and foliage. Because older trees of Black Tupelo often develop cavities, they provide dens for various small mammals and nesting habitat for some species of birds.

Photographic Location: The campus of the University of Illinois in Urbana, Illinois.

Black Tupelo is showiest during the autumn when its leaves assume brilliant colors and some of its fruit is still hanging on the tree. Other common names of this tree are Black Gum and Sour Gum. A variety of Black Tupelo, Nyssa sylvatica biflora (Swamp Tupelo), is very similar to the typical variety that is described here. Swamp Tupelo differs by having smaller leaves (less than 2" long) that are more oblong in shape. The seeds of its fruits are more deeply grooved than those of Black Tupelo. Swamp Tupelo is sometimes treated as a distinct species, Nyssa biflora. It is often found in swamps and its distribution is more southern. In Illinois, Swamp Tupelo is restricted to the southern tip of the state, where it is rare. Another species, Nyssa aquatica (Water Tupelo), prefers swamps with standing water and areas along major rivers that are frequently flooded. It is a tall tree (up to 100') with a long straight trunk that is swollen at the base; Water Tupelo is a frequent associate of Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum). This tree is also restricted to southern Illinois. It differs from Black Tupelo by having larger fruits (up to 1" long) that are borne individually, rather than in sessile clusters. It also has longer petioles. Sometimes, trees in this genus are assigned to the Dogwood family (Cornaceae).