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Nyssa sylvatica: Black Tupelo1

Edward F. Gilman, Dennis G. Watson, Ryan W. Klein, Andrew K. Koeser, Deborah R. Hilbert, and Drew C. McLean 2


Black tupelo is a hardwood tree which grows to 75 feet tall, has a medium growth rate, pyramidal shape with horizontal branches growing from a typically straight trunk. But the shape of the crown varies from tree to tree and, unfortunately, this is looked upon by some architects as undesirable. As the tree grows to 10 and 15-years-old, crown form becomes more uniform among trees. Lower branches droop with age and will need to be removed if used as a street tree. Growth habit is similar to pin oak, a tree which many people are familiar with. Providing a brilliant display of red to deep purple foliage in the fall, black tupelo surprises most people since it does not particularly stand out in the landscape until then. The small, blue fruits may be considered a litter nuisance in urban/suburban plantings but are quite popular with many birds and mammals, and they wash away quickly.


Figure 1. Full Form - Nyssa sylvatica: black tupelo
Figure 1.  Full Form - Nyssa sylvatica: black tupelo
Credit: UF/IFAS


General Information

Scientific name: Nyssa sylvatica

Pronunciation: NISS-uh sill-VAT-ih-kuh

Common name(s): black tupelo, blackgum, sourgum

Family: Nyssaceae

USDA hardiness zones: 4B through 9B (Figure 2)

Origin: native to the east half of the United States, extreme southern Ontario, and central and southern Mexico

UF/IFAS Invasive Assessment Status: native

Uses: reclamation; specimen; street without sidewalk; shade; parking lot island 100-200 sq ft; parking lot island > 200 sq ft; sidewalk cutout (tree pit); tree lawn 4-6 feet wide; tree lawn > 6 ft wide; highway median


Figure 2. 
Figure 2. 



Height: 65 to 75 feet

Spread: 25 to 35 feet

Crown uniformity: symmetrical

Crown shape: pyramidal, oval

Crown density: moderate

Growth rate: slow

Texture: medium


Leaf arrangement: alternate

Leaf type: simple

Leaf margin: entire

Leaf shape: elliptic (oval), oblong

Leaf venation: pinnate

Leaf type and persistence: deciduous

Leaf blade length: 2 to 6 inches

Leaf color: dark green and shiny on top, paler green underneath; develops purplish spots

Fall color: orange, red, and deep purple

Fall characteristic: showy


Figure 3. Leaf - Nyssa sylvatica: black tupelo
Figure 3.  Leaf - Nyssa sylvatica: black tupelo
Credit: UF/IFAS



Flower color: greenish yellow

Flower characteristics: not showy; emerges in clusters on a small stalk at leaf axils

Flowering: spring

Figure 5. Flower, Male - Nyssa sylvatica: black tupelo
Figure 5.  Flower, Male - Nyssa sylvatica: black tupelo
Credit: UF/IFAS


Fruit shape: oblong

Fruit length: ¼ to ½ inch

Fruit covering: fleshy drupe

Fruit color: blue-black

Fruit characteristics: attracts birds; not showy; fruit/leaves a litter problem

Fruiting: ripens in late summer and early fall

Trunk and Branches

Trunk/branches: branches droop; not showy; typically one trunk; no thorns

Bark: dark gray, brown, brown black; irregularly and shallowly furrowed; becoming blocky with age

Pruning requirement: little required

Breakage: resistant

Current year twig color: gray, brown

Current year twig thickness: thin, medium

Wood specific gravity: 0.50

Figure 6. Bark, Young - Nyssa sylvatica: black tupelo
Figure 6.  Bark, Young - Nyssa sylvatica: black tupelo
Credit: UF/IFAS
Figure 7. Bark, Mature - Nyssa sylvatica: black tupelo
Figure 7.  Bark, Mature - Nyssa sylvatica: black tupelo
Credit: Gitta Hasing, UF/IFAS


Light requirement: full sun to partial shade

Soil tolerances: clay; sand; loam; acidic; wet to well-drained

Drought tolerance: high

Aerosol salt tolerance: moderate


Roots: not a problem

Winter interest: yes

Outstanding tree: yes

Ozone sensitivity: tolerant

Verticillium wilt susceptibility: susceptible

Pest resistance: free of serious pests and diseases

Use and Management

Black tupelo prefers a moist, slightly acid soil. Larger specimens may be difficult to transplant from deep, well-drained field soil because of its deep roots and should only be transplanted from the field in the spring. Therefore, it is usually seen growing in containers at the nursery. Little pruning is required to form a well-structured tree since the trunk stays straight and branches usually grow at wide angles with the trunk. Black tupelo makes a good street or parking lot tree for suburban neighborhoods, possibly for downtown areas. It should be used more often for this purpose but will benefit from occasional irrigation in droughts. Does amazingly well in wet, compacted soils typical of many urban areas with highly disturbed clay soil. It is also somewhat salt-tolerant for planting along the shore.

Black tupelo is rarely attacked by pests, and when it is they are rarely serious enough to warrant control.

Nyssa sylvatica var. sylvatica grows on moist sites; var. aquatica has a buttressed and swollen trunk base and grows in swamps. Nyssa bicolor is very similar and often confused with Nyssa sylvatica.


Scales, including Sourgum scale, can be controlled with horticultural oil.

Forest tent caterpillar can defoliate the tree in the spring. Unless defoliation is extensive in two or more successive years, control is not needed.


Several fungi cause cankers on black tupelo. As the cankers enlarge the infected stems die back. Trunk cankers cause tree dieback. Prune out infected branches and keep trees healthy.

Leaf spots cause purplish blotches on the upper leaf surface. Rake up and destroy infected leaves in the fall to reduce the disease potential for the following year, if you wish.

Recently a large number of trees have been discovered dying in the mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and Georgia. The causal agent is unknown but symptoms include leaf spots, branch cankers, leaves dying and hanging on the tree, and leaf blotches.


Koeser, A. K., Hasing, G., Friedman, M. H., and Irving, R. B. 2015. Trees: North & Central Florida. University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.


1. This document is ENH-581, one of a series of the Environmental Horticulture Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date November 1993. Revised December 2018. Visit the EDIS website at for the currently supported version of this publication.
2. Edward F. Gilman, professor emeritus, Environmental Horticulture Department; Dennis G. Watson, former associate professor, Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department; Ryan W. Klein, graduate assistant, Environmental Horticulture Department; Andrew K. Koeser, assistant professor, Environmental Horticulture Department, UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center; Deborah R. Hilbert, graduate assistant, Environmental Horticulture Department, GCREC; and Drew C. McLean, biological scientist, Environmental Horticulture Department, GCREC; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.

Publication #ENH-581

Release Date:April 25, 2019

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    • Andrew Koeser