Black Gum Tree


Photo courtesy of  the Natural Landscape Nursery

Black Gum, Black Tupelo or Sourgum (Nyssa sylvatica)


The black gum makes a great street tree or ornamental specimen for your yard.  It has a single straight trunk and a full rounded crown of glossy dark green summer foliage.  Its fall color is terrific with a display of luminescent deep red, orange, yellow and maroon leaves. 

Black gum is native to the eastern United States from Maine to Florida, and is commonly found growing in both uplands and wetlands.  Because it grows well in a range of soils, it is well adapted to the varied soils that characterize Princeton’s urban and suburban neighborhoods.  

Late in summer, the diminutive greenish white spring flowers mature into a small blue black fruit (drupe).  This tree exhibits “foliar fruit flagging,” a phenomenon in which a few leaves turn bright red during early fall signaling migrating birds and attracting them to feed on the nutritious fruit.  Several other species of plant with highly nutritious fruit required by migrants also do this, including flowering dogwood, sassafras and poison ivy.  

The tree has a slow to moderate growth rate and will be 30 feet after 20 years, achieving a maximum height of about 60-80 feet.  The tree is expected to be long lived, probably 250 years or more, and is locally adapted. The Princeton Borough Shade Tree Commission has been planting planted this tree in recent years along our Borough streets.  

Black gum trees don’t appear to have any major insect pests or disease problems and have few maintenance or pruning needs.  The wood and branches are strong and flexible and will withstand snow and ice loading.  

Black gum is available from most local nurseries but call ahead to check availability.  It can be a little difficult to transplant so purchase small Balled & Burlapped or potted plants.  Choose to plant this specimen tree in a sunny open location if it is to achieve a full rounded crown and finest fall coloring.  Plan ahead since it is best transplanted in the early spring.   

If its shape and fall colors appeal to you, but you don’t have the space for such a tall tree, look for the cultivar “Sheri’s Cloud” which grows to 30’ and has variegated foliage; or “Zydeco Twist” which grows to 20’ and has unusual contorted branches.  The cultivars “Red Rage” and “Wildfire,” grow to about 40’, and as their names suggest, will have spectacular fall color.