TREES & plants


Tupelo or sour gum is a striking pyramidal tree in its youth with horizontal branches growing from a typically straight trunk. As the tree matures it takes on more of an irregular habit. The dark green glossy summer foliage takes center stage in fall when the leaves turn bright scarlet.

Botanical name: 
Nyssa sylvatica
All Common Names: 
tupelo, black gum, sour gum, black tupelo, pepperidge
Family (English): 
Sour Gum
Family (Botanic): 
Tree or Plant Type: 
  • Tree
Native Locale: 
  • Chicago area
  • Illinois
  • North America
Planting Site: 
  • City parkway
  • Wide median
  • Residential and parks
Landscape Uses: 
  • Specimen
  • Shade
  • Parkway/street
Size Range: 
  • Medium tree (25-40 feet)
  • Large tree (more than 40 feet)
Mature Height: 
30-50 feet
Mature Width: 
20-30 feet
Light Exposure: 
  • Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily)
  • Partial sun/shade (4-6 hrs light daily)
Hardiness Zones: 
  • Zone 4
  • Zone 5
  • Zone 6
  • Zone 7
  • Zone 8
  • Zone 9
Soil Preference: 
  • Acid soil
Acid Soils: 
  • Prefers
Alkaline Soils: 
  • Intolerant
Salt Spray: 
  • Moderately Tolerant
Soil Salt: 
  • Moderately Tolerant
Drought Conditions: 
  • Moderately Tolerant
Poor Drainage: 
  • Moderately Tolerant
Planting Considerations: 
  • May be difficult to find in nurseries
  • Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)
Ornamental Interest: 
  • Attractive bark
  • Persistent fruit/seeds
  • Showy fruit
  • Fall color
Season of Interest: 
  • Late spring
  • Early fall
  • Mid fall
Flower Color & Fragrance: 
  • Inconspicuous
  • Other
Shape or Form: 
  • Oval
  • Pyramidal
  • Round
Growth Rate: 
  • Slow
Transplants Well: 
  • Yes
  • Cavity-nesting birds
  • Game birds
  • Mammals
  • Songbirds
More Information: 

Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)photo: John Hagstrom
Size & form

A large deciduous tree reaching 30 to 50 feet high and 20 to 30 feet wide
Pyramidal in youth maturing to a flat-topped crown with distinct horizontal branches sometimes pendulous
Slow growth with adequate moisture

Tree & Plant Care

Prefers moist, well-drained, acidic soils high in organic matter. Best in full sun.
Tolerates poorly-drained soils and can grow in standing water.
Tree has a taproot, making it difficult to transplant, spring plant only.
Prune in late fall or during dormant season.

Disease, pests, and problems

Can develop chlorotic (yellowing) leaves in high pH soils
Cankers and leaf spots.

Disease, pest, and problem resistance

Tolerant of black walnut toxicity.

Native geographic location and habitat

C-Value: 8
Native to eastern North America from New England and southern Ontario south to central Florida and eastern Texas, as well as Mexico.
Found naturally growing on or above stream and ravine banks.

Attracts birds & butterflies

Early fall fruit is a favorite of migrating song birds.
Although flowers are not showy, they are an excellent nectar source for bees. 

Bark color and texture 

Distinct horizontal branching, mature bark has thick blocky ridges, similar to alligator skin.

Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture

Alternate, dense leathery leaves are up to 5 inches long, dark green and elliptical in shape with smooth margins.

Flower arrangement, shape, and size

Dioecious (separate male and female trees), but sometimes each tree has some perfect flowers. Female trees need a male tree for pollination.
Small, greenish-white flowers appear on long stalks the same time leaves are emerging.
Female flowers in sparse clusters and male flowers in dense heads.

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions

Small, 1/2 inch, dark purple oval fruits (drupes) appears on female trees only.They are quite sour, hence the name.
Fruit ripens ripens in late September as leaves are changing color.