Identify the Gums

Understanding two North American gum tree species

Black Gum
Photo by Steve Nix

The tupelos, or sometimes called pepperidge tree, are members of a small genus called Nyssa. There are only about 9 to 11 species worldwide. They are known to grow in mainland China and eastern Tibet and North America.

The North American tupelo has alternate, simple leaves and the fruit is a single drupe containing seed. These seed capsules float and are distributed over major wetland areas where the tree regenerates. Water tupelo is especially adept at seed dispersal along waterways.

Most, especially water tupelo, are highly tolerant of wet soils and flooding, some needing to grow in such environments to ensure future regeneration. Only two important species are native to eastern North America and none live naturally in the Western states.

Black Tupelo or Nyssa sylvatica is the most common true gum in North America and grows from Canada to Texas. Another common tree that is called a "gum" is sweetgum and is actually an entirely different tree species classification called Liquidambar. The fruit and leaves of sweetgum look nothing like these true gums.

Water tupelo or Nyssa aquatica is a wetland tree living mostly along the coastal plain from Texas to Virginia. Water tupelo's range reaches far up the Mississippi River to southern Illinois. It is most often found in swamps and near perennial wet areas and a companion tree to baldcypress.

Tupelos are highly valued honey plants in the Southeastern and Gulf Coast states, producing a very light, mild-tasting honey. In northern Florida, beekeepers keep beehives along the river swamps on platforms or floats during tupelo bloom to produce certified tupelo honey, which commands a high price on the market because of its flavor.

Interesting Facts About Gums

Black gum can be a slow grower but does best on moist, acid soils. Still, its persistence in cultivation can make for one of the most beautiful fall red leaf colors. Purchase a proven cultivar for the best results including 'Sheffield Park', 'Autumn Cascade' and 'Bernheim Select'.

The water tupelo is also called "cotton gum" for its cottony new growth. It is just as hearty on wetland as baldcypress and ranked as one of the most flood-tolerant tree species in North America. This gum can become huge and sometimes exceed 100 feet in height. The tree can, like baldcypress, grow a grand basal trunk buttress.

One species that I have not listed here is the Ogeechee gum that grows in parts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. It is of little commercial value and has a limited range.

The Gum Tree List

  • Black Tupelo Gum
  • Water Tupelo

Leaves: alternate, simple, not toothed.
Bark: deeply furrowed.
Fruit: elliptical berry.