Black Gum

One of the most common trees found in forests of Frederick County is the black gum tree. The scientific name of this tree, Nyssa sylvatica, translates to “wood nymph” in Greek. The common name, “black gum,” is most often used by people in the Appalachian Region, while people in the south commonly refer to this tree as the “black tupelo.”

Black gums are found in a number of woodland communities, from bottomlands to mountain ridges. This is a slower growing, medium-to large-sized tree that develops deeply furrowed, light gray bark, and has a deep taproot. The main branches on the gum tree are attached at right angles to the trunk. Knowing this growth habit is an easy way to identify a black gum tree during the winter when there are no leaves on the tree.

Black gum is moderately shade tolerant, which means that it will germinate and become established in the shade, surviving until it can exploit an opening in the canopy. Once that occurs, the gum tree will experience a growth spurt and develop to the overstory.

The bark of a black gum tree.

A black gum tree in fall color.

This is one of the longest lived trees found in the East, and its lifespan can extend up to 700 years. Its elliptical-shaped, single leaf is dark green in the summer, and brilliant crimson in the fall. The leaves of the gum are one of the first to begin color change, sometimes starting in late August in the higher elevations in our area.

The fruit of the black gum is a blue-black drupe that ripens in early October, highly prized by migrating birds. The tree has heavy, spongy wood with a lot of cross grain.

For this reason, the wood is very difficult to split for firewood. Instead, the texture lends itself to applications where strong, split-resistant wood is needed, such as in wood mallets or mauls. Light amber tupelo honey is derived from the black gum tree.

Black gum is rated very highly for wildlife value. This long-lived tree often develops cavities that serve as homes for a number of woodland dwelling wildlife. The berries offer nutrition for birds, ripening at the beginning of fall migration. In addition, this tree produces large amounts of pollen, which is good for local pollinators.

Black gum trees are grown for ornamental purposes, as well. They cast a moderate amount of shade — enough to notice, but not enough to make it impossible to have a lawn. It has brilliant fall foliage, is deep rooted, lives a long time, and does not have a lot of disease or insect pests. Given these positive traits, it is somewhat surprising that this tree is not used more frequently in landscapes.

Article by FCFCDB

Nature Notes for 8/2/2015