Habitat Garden Shade Tree – Black Gum Nyssa sylvatica Tupelo
Black Gum Nyssa sylvatica, Black Tupelo – Bird Garden Shade Tree
Black Gum Nyssa sylvatica, Black Tupelo – Why don’t people plant this native more often? There is not much to complain about it as a shade tree – it’s a beautiful addition to a wildlife garden and works well in an ornamental landscape. My experience is with both species and the cultivar ‘Wildfire’. They have proven themselves to be hardy, low maintenance, not messy, tolerant of different soils, sun and water and all around easy to have on my property. The ‘Plus’ list goes on. Even if you didn’t give a rat’s behind about Eco-friendly or native plants, this is a nice tree.
Nyssa sylvatica is a smaller shade tree at 30′ – 60′. If watered well when young it can develop a deep root system which can be used on slopes and banks. This means the roots aren’t known for pushing through sidewalks, driveways and lawns. It also may be used as a street tree in areas which are not heavily polluted.
As an ornamental choice Black Gum works well by providing beautiful foliage spring through fall. In the spring the new growth is red tipped so the entire tree has an outer layer of color, adding a bright, interesting spot in a landscape. The red color can be seen from a distance and is quite unique. During summer, foliage is a medium green, thick textured, and different. I love different. While so many landscapes use the same plants over and over I aim for something unusual.
The autumn color on Nyssa sylvatica is simply WOW. Bright yellows to reds will light up a landscape. This is when Black Gum shines the most – it is a stunner. The cultivar ‘Wildfire’ has more reliable fall color than species, but either one will stand out. While there are several maple varieties which are frequently planted solely for their outstanding fall foliage, a Nyssa sylvatica can provide the same as well as has a higher wildlife value than a maple. Another plus is that I have not had nearly the problems with Black Gum seeding as I have had with maples.
Spring flowers are small and non showy but attractive to pollinators, Nyssa is considered a ‘honey tree’. The blossoms develop into small, blue black berries which will offer wildlife a valuable food source. It isn’t a messy tree, branches aren’t constantly falling out and the berries do not create litter – birds will eat them as fast as the ripen.
As far as birds go, Nyssa sylvatica Black Gum is an important food source for migrating birds in the fall. If you want cedar waxwings to stop in your yard, plant a black gum. It is reported that 90 species of birds will eat the berries, so if you wish to attract birds to a backyard, this is one tree which is effective for bringing a lot of birds. Each fall mine are loaded with migrating waxwings. I will always plant this tree just for that reason. Other birds that feed on the fruit are: thrashers, thrushes, woodpeckers, robins, catbirds and mockingbirds.
I have several Black Gum which occur naturally on my property and can say that the only negative issue I have had is one single specimen sends out suckers. That is one tree out of about six mature specimens, and the single tree I have issues with is growing in very poor soil so is more shallow rooted than the others. The suckers are not difficult to deal with but they are insistent!
If you live in a subdivision with stricter landscaping rules as far as a more formal look but you still wish to have a wildlife friendly yard, I would suggest looking into Black Gum Nyssa sylvatica. It is often overlooked as an ornamental tree in my opinion. If you are simply looking for a shade tree to enhance a backyard habitat, put Nyssa sylvatica on your list.
Black Gum Nyssa sylvatica should not be difficult to find in the landscape trade. If you can not find it, often you can ask smaller local nurseries to order it for you. They will have access to wholesale growers and are usually happy to obtain a larger specimen than you would receive from mail order.