Blackgum is a hardy and versatile West Virginia tree with features that make it an excellent choice for certain landscape situations. Seldom troubled by disease or insect infestation, established trees can thrive in almost any acidic soil, moist or dry. Blackgum offers dense shade from smallish, simple, unlobed, glossy leaves in the summer, and brilliant fall color – usually red, sometimes orange or yellow - from October into November. The Arbor Day Foundation’s Tree Guide calls it “one of the most attractive native trees around.” In the U.K., a blackgum cultivar won the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit in 2013 for its superb ornamental traits.
Morgantown City Arborist Scott Cline reports being “always amazed at how resilient” blackgums can be. He took this photo of one of his favorite local specimens, across from the playground in Marilla Park.
In cultivation, blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica), sometimes called black tupelo, sourgum, or pepperidge, grows fairly slowly – often about a foot per year – and usually has a broadly pyramidal shape. It may develop into a medium-sized tree, perhaps 30 to 60 feet tall at maturity. Woodland trees may grow taller, live hundreds of years, and develop attractive, blocky bark with a pattern reminiscent of alligator hide. The small, greenish-white flowers are not showy, but they do attract honeybees, which make high-quality honey from blackgum nectar and pollen. The small, fleshy, blue-black fruit is an important food for many birds and some insects and mammals. With small fruits and leaves that don’t blow around much after falling, blackgum is not considered a messy tree.
For all its merits, this tree may not be ideal for every situation. If showy flowers are important, dogwood, serviceberry, redbud, cherry, crabapple, hawthorn, and magnolia might be considered instead. Blackgum’s sometimes long, horizontal branches can make it an awkward choice for planting close to a street or sidewalk, although there are cultivars of blackgum with narrower growth. Where adequate space is available, this native species makes a beautiful, no-nonsense shade tree, unlikely to cause problems, with superb fall color.