Tupelo

Fall color of tupelo leaves.

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.   This species is native to the Chicago region according to Swink and Wilhelm's Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research.

This plant has some cultivated varieties. Go to list of cultivars.

 

Botanical name:

Nyssa sylvatica

All Common Names:

tupelo, black gum, sour gum, black tupelo, pepperidge

Family (English):

Sour Gum

Family (Botanic):

Nyssaceae

Tree or Plant Type:

  • Tree

Foliage:

  • Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)

Native Locale:

  • Chicago area,
  • Illinois,
  • North America

Planting Site:

  • Residential and parks,
  • City parkway,
  • Wide median

Landscape Uses:

  • Parkway/street,
  • Shade tree,
  • Specimen

Size Range:

  • Large tree (more than 40 feet),
  • Medium tree (25-40 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 (Chicago),
  • Zone 6,
  • Zone 7,
  • Zone 8,
  • Zone 9

Soil Preference:

  • Acid soil,
  • Moist, well-drained 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

Ornamental Interest:

  • Fall color,
  • Persistent fruit/seeds,
  • Showy fruit,
  • Attractive bark

Season of Interest:

  • Early fall,
  • Mid fall

Flower Color & Fragrance:

  • Inconspicuous,
  • Other

Shape or Form:

  • Oval,
  • Pyramidal,
  • Round

Growth Rate:

  • Slow

Transplants Well:

  • Yes

Wildlife:

  • Cavity-nesting birds,
  • Game birds,
  • Mammals,
  • Songbirds

More Information:

Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)
Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)
photo: John Hagstrom

Tree & Plant Care

Prefers moist, well-drained, acidic soils high in organic matter. Best in full sun.
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 are potential problems.

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.

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.  Fall color is scarlet.

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.

Cultivars and their differences

Afterburner® tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica 'David Odum'): This cultivar grows 35 feet high and 20 feet wide.  Very symmetrical shape (upright pyramidal to oval); excellent red fall color.

Wildfire tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica 'Wildfire'):   New foliage emerges bright red, then matures to a dark, glossy green.  Fall color is yellow-orange to purple-red.

 

Location of Nyssa sylvatica (Tupelo) at the Arboretum