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Featured Plant Of The Month

There is always something in bloom at the Arboretum! Use our Plants Library to plan a photo shoot or to choose one of the trails to walk. Learn more about the plants at the Arboretum by visiting our Previously Featured Plants list and our Special Seasonal Featured Plants page.


Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica)

Black Gum Bark Black Gum Leaves Black Gum Fruit

Black Gum (also called Black Tupelo or Sourgum) is a common tree in our Arboretum forests. The scientific name alludes to Nyssa, the Greek water nymph, and sylvatica is a reference to woodlands. The origin of the common name “Black Gum” is unclear but may refer to its dark blue-purple fruit. The shiny, alternate leaves are usually elliptic in shape, often wider above the middle with a pointed tip, and from 2 to 5 in. long. In the fall the leaves turn red, orange, or almost purple. The branches grow out perpendicular to the trunk, somewhat resembling the spokes on a wheel, and older branches tend to become twisted. The dark, furrowed bark is said to resemble alligator skin.

The trees are either predominately male or female, but often a few flowers of the opposite sex are present. The small, dark blue, fleshy fruits (drupes) found in the fall are eaten by birds, squirrels, and other small mammals. The leaves and twigs provide forage for deer. Trees may grow to heights of 60 to 100 ft., and can live to be over 400 years old. Black Gum wood is cross-grained and hard to work. A variety of uses include: crossties, crates, pulpwood, boxes, railroad ties, flooring, and pistol grips. In former times the wood has been used for water pipes and oxen yokes, while the twigs were often used for toothbrushes.

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University of Tennessee - Forest Resources AgResearch and Education Center
901 South Illinois Avenue, Oak Ridge, Tennessee 37830 · Telephone: 865-483-3571 · Email: UTforest@utk.edu