Black Gum Tree Growing Tips

The Proper Latin Name Is Nyssa sylvatica

Low-angle view of sun star through black gum tree (nyssa sylvatica) in autumn color, Hanging Rock State Park, North Carolina, USA.
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Nyssa sylvatica, which is also known as the black gum, is a deciduous tree that is originally from the United States. It is an excellent choice to add autumn color to your garden.

Latin Name

Nyssa sylvatica is the botanical name given to this species. The genus name of Nyssa is taken from a water nymph in Greek mythology. The family for black gum is Nyssaceae, though some botanists classify this genus within the Cornaceae (dogwood) family. The dove tree (Davidia involucrata) is also sometimes included in this family.

Common Name

The names used for this tree are black gum, sourgum, yellow gum, black tupelo, cotton gum, tupelo-gum, pepperidge, swamp tupelo, swamp black gum, sour gum or tupelo. This tree is not related to gum trees, which belong to Angophora spp., Corymbia spp. and Eucalyptus spp.

Preferred USDA Hardiness Zones

Nyssa sylvatica is best suited for Zones 4-9. It is native to the eastern United States.

Size and Shape

The mature height will be 30-75' tall and 20-35' wide depending on the growing location and climate. When the black gum is young, it is usually formed into a pyramidal shape. Over the years it can be oval, irregular or horizontal in shape.


The black gum should be planted where there will be full sun to part shade.


Nyssa sylvatica has dark green leaves that are ovate, obovate or elliptical and measure 3-6" long. The fall display includes foliage in shades of orange, red, purple and yellow.

The flowers of black gum are light green in color and form into pendulous clusters in the spring.

Most trees are dioecious so you would need both a male and a female for fruit production. Sometimes, though, it will have perfect flowers, making this ultimately a polygamodioecious species.

Once the flowers are pollinated, they form into black stone fruits (drupes) that mature in early fall. Birds will eat them.

Design Tips

‘Zydeco Twist’ is a variety of black gum that offers branches that twist somewhat and stand out during the winter. ‘Autumn Cascades’ is a weeping variety with especially good fall coloring. If you would like red leaves throughout the growing season, look for ‘Wildfire’.

Since the black gum has a long taproot, it can have difficulties arise after it is transplanted. It also may struggle if planted in the fall. For best results, you may want to start one from seed in the desired site or choose a young sapling where the taproot will be shorter.

Growing Tips

Nyssa sylvatica needs soil that is acidic and that allows water to drain away from the roots.

Reproduction is performed through seed germination and the use of cuttings. Grafting is used to preserve the characteristics of named cultivars.

Maintenance and Pruning

Black gum does not usually require much pruning to maintain the tree beyond the standard care of removing parts that have become dead, damaged or diseased.

Pests and Diseases

  • The forest tent caterpillar (Malacosoma disstria) will chomp away at the leaves and cause defoliation. You can try organic controls like Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki, neem oil and spinosad. You can remove affected branches and get rid of nests and eggs. If the problem persists and is extensive, call your local extension service to find appropriate insecticides for your area.
  • Sapsuckers are a type of bird that peck holes into the trunk to reach the sap. You can wrap the areas of the trunk where they attack in burlap, or you can use a deterrent that is formulated for sapsuckers.
  • Sourgum scale (Chionaspis nyssae) and other scales
  • Tupelo leafminer (Antispila nysaefoliella)
  • Cankers can result when fungi start growing on a dead branch. Take out the affected branch to help curb the spread of the fungus.
  • Heartrot happens after your tree has had open wounds occur in the trunk. Fungi invade and over time cause the wood to rot and decay. You will need to watch the tree over time to see how extensive the damage becomes.
  • Leaf spots
  • Tupelo lesion happens when the Fusarium solani fungus attacks and the result is that the bark swells up and becomes rough.