One of the trees that is a harbinger of autumn is Nyssa sylvatica, commonly known as black gum. A member of the “tupelo” or Nyssaceae family, black gum is also known as black tupelo, tupelo or sour gum.
Black gum is a large tree that can reach a height of 100 feet, although most range from 30 to 40 feet in height. The tree is pyramidal in shape during its youth. As the tree ages, the black gum develops a flattened top and it may become more rounded in shape rather than pyramidal.
The leaves of the black gum tree are simple and alternate. The leaves grow up to six inches long and up to three inches wide. They are oval in shape with sharp tips. Throughout much of the year the leaves are dark green, shiny and smooth.
Black gum leaves begin changing color in late summer, sometimes as early as August. The leaves have a wide range of color – scarlet, orange, purple or yellow. A grouping of black gum trees may provide a brilliant autumn display of several different colors. Unlike some trees, the leaves of the black gum do not persist in the fall.
The range of black gum is wide; it can be found in zones four to nine from Maine to Michigan, Florida and Texas. Black gum is found in Southern Missouri. In the Ozarks, black gum is found in dry woods in acid or sandy soils, wooded slopes, ravines and borders of sinkholes. In Southeast Missouri, black gum grows in lowland forests.
Black gum flowers in mid to late spring as the leaves appear. Male and female flowers appear in clusters, and in early fall, the flowers produce a small, half-inch long, egg-shaped fruit. This fruit is eaten by 32 known species of birds as well as small rodents, raccoons, foxes, deer and bear.
The bark of black gum is gray, black or brown with deep grooves. The wood is heavy, tough and closely grained. The wood, due to the fact that it is non-splitting in nature – has been used for tool handles, plywood and gunstocks.
Black gum tree is very difficult to transplant. Smaller, container grown black gum trees are most likely to survive transplanting rather than bare root seedlings. Despite the difficulty of growing transplanted black gum trees, the fall color, beautiful shape, and shade providing qualities of the black gum make it an excellent tree for the landscape.
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