On a late August morning while enjoying coffee beside our pond, we noticed a flurry of activity high in a slender tree near the water’s edge opposite our chairs. Binoculars revealed a large number of juvenile blue birds, red bellied woodpeckers and American goldfinches picnicking on the dark blue berry-like fruits of a Black Gum Tupelo.
These small fleshy drupes provide food to over 30 species of birds and because they ripen earlier than many other fall fruits, they are especially important to migrating birds. They are also eaten by black bear and other mammals.
In the south, bees collect nectar from the small flowers of the Black Gum and its relatives to produce the prized Tupelo honey. Feral bees often form colonies in cavities of decayed Black Gum limbs. In earlier times, beekeepers used hollow sections of trunks for “bee gums” to hold hives. The tree’s low resistance to decay provides denning opportunities for squirrels, raccoons and possums.
A member of the Dogwood family, Nyssa sylvatica is also commonly called Black Tupelo, Sourgum or Pepperidge. This tree’s habitat is typically moist to wet soil near streams or wetlands. Often planted as an ornamental, Black Gum’s glossy leaves turn an intense scarlet or burgundy in autumn. In aged trees the bark resembles alligator hide. It is considered a medium size tree whose height can vary from 40 to 90-plus feet and the life span can be from 50 to 100 years.
Black Gum Tupelo wood is hard and extremely difficult to split. Lumber sawn from Black Gums is useful in making furniture, particularly the strong interior components and veneer. The veneer is also used to make berry baskets while the pulp is made into paper favored for printing high-grade books and magazines. The wood’s strength makes it ideal for purposes such as flooring for factories and dump truck beds and, when chemically treated, for railroad ties. Black Gum wood is used by artisans for carving duck decoys and creating beautiful turned bowls.
— Joanna Angle is a 30-year resident of Chester County and a Master Tree Farmer. She has previously directed the Olde English District Tourism Commission, produced and hosted “Palmetto Places” for SCETV and helped establish the Chester campus of York Technical College.