Nyssa is Greek, after a water nymph; sylvatica is Latin for forest-loving.
The common name tupelo comes from the Greek word for swamp.
In nature, this species is very adaptable, tolerating both dry, sandy soils and low, wet woodlands with poor drainage, as well as sun, which it prefers, or shade.
Offers lovely 4-season interest as a specimen or shade tree, growing well in sunny, wet areas such as water or bog gardens. The lush summer foliage, vivid autumn color, and blue fruit on gnarled branches can be especially striking. Older trees may be less attractive due to susceptibility to top die-back, insect damage (tent caterpillars, leaf miner) and disease (heart rot). However, because of its proclivity to cavity formation, it is considered one of the most valuable den species.
This attractive, deciduous tree can reach 120 feet in height and 4 feet in diameter in optimal conditions in southeastern U.S. In Maine, it tends to be slow growing and understory height (30 feet), and is found in acidic wetlands, where it is often associated with red maple. The crown shape can be quite variable, including conical, flat-topped, or horizontally spreading. N. sylvatica is divided into 2 common varieties: var. sylvatica, found more often in northern light-textured stream bottoms and uplands, and var. biflora, found in southern wet bottom land; however, these varieties intermingle indistinguishably along much of the east coast.
Leaves and Stems
The trunk is distinctive, stout, often bottle-shaped when grown in shallow standing water, and always multi-branched. Leaves are simple, alternate, smooth and ovoid, sharply pointed at the tip, and tapering at the base. Their upper surface is dark green, glossy and smooth, while the under-surface is typically paler and often hairy. Leaves reach approximately 5 inches in length and 2 inches in width, and grow each on a single stem 1 - 2 inches long. In autumn in the north, leaves can turn brilliantly to varied and luminous shades, including yellow, orange, scarlet, and purple.
Flowers appear after leaves, and are small and greenish white, and polygamous dioecious (male and female either on one or separate trees). Male flowers are tiny and appear in spherical clusters. Female flowers have 0 to 5 tiny petals, with 5 sepals on a floral cup above the ovary. These grow along long stalks that grow from leaf axils.
Drupes (stone fruit); each small, blue, bitter berry is approximately 1/2 inch long, containing a single, ribbed seed.
Berries and larval insect pollinators offer food to numerous small mammals and birds. Adaptable source of deer browse when young; too bitter as it ages. Excellent honey tree.
Tupelo reproduce vegetatively, as stump sprouts or by root suckering or from seed, which overwinters on cool, moist soil and germinates in the spring. To propagate, collect seed in late summer or early fall. Pulp should be removed and the seed air-dried for 1-2 days. Plant seed in muddy soil and cover with 1 inch of firmly-packed soil. Keep out in winter in part-shade, or cold stratify 30-60 days at 40 degrees F. Tupelo does not transplant easily, as it has fleshy, non-fibrous roots, and a tap root. Trees with trunks under 4-inches in diameter are best for transplanting; this should occur in early spring prior to growth.
The highly cross-grained wood of this tree is difficult to work, but it makes sturdy tool handles and chopping bowls.
South Woods (see garden map)
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service
Plant Profile by Kate O’Dell