How to Grow and Care for Black Gum Trees

Black gum tree with glossy green leaves in middle of wooded area

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

The black gum tree (Nyssa sylvatica) is a medium-size deciduous tree with a slow growth rate, gaining only around 1 to 2 feet per year. It generally grows in a rounded shape with a straight trunk, and its bark is likened to alligator skin. The leaves vary in shape and stretch from around 3 to 6 inches long. On of the most attractive features of the tree is its fall color. The leaves change from a dark glossy green to brilliant shades of red, orange, yellow, and purple in the fall. The non-showy, tiny flowers in the spring turn into small dark blue sour fruits that tend to attract birds and other wildlife. 

This tree is best planted in the spring.

Common Names Black gum tree, tupelo, black tupelo, sour gum tree, pepperidge
Botanical Name Nyssa sylvatica
Family Nyssaceae
Plant Type Tree
Mature Size 30-50 ft. tall, 20-30 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full, partial
Soil Type Moist, well-drained
Soil pH Acidic
Hardiness Zones 3-9 (USDA)
Native Area North America

Black Gum Tree Care

Black gum trees are generally low-maintenance additions to a landscape, and they provide excellent ornamental value. Even though they take many years to reach their mature size, they must be planted in an area that allows them plenty of room to grow. That’s because these trees have a long taproot that reaches deep into the ground. Make sure to plant the tree in its permanent location as it is difficult to remove without harming the root.

Trees in their first growing season will need regular watering, but after that you likely won’t have to worry about watering unless your climate is dry. The pruning and fertilization requirements for this native tree are also minimal.

Black gum tree with thin light brown trunk and glossy green leaves closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Black gum tree with long branches and glossy green leaves in wooded area

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Black gum tree branch with glossy green leaves and new growth closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Light

This tree can grow in full to partial sunlight. That means it should get at least four hours of direct sunlight on most days. 

Soil

The black gum tree is tolerant of various soil types. It prefers loamy soil with an acidic pH and good drainage. But it can handle a spot with poor drainage and even some standing water. It also is moderately tolerant of clay soil, as well as gravelly or sandy soil. 

Water

The tree likes moist soil and should be watered regularly when it is young to maintain even soil moisture. However, it also has some drought tolerance, and mature trees can adapt to growing in relatively dry soils. Still, if you have a prolonged period without rainfall and your soil begins to dry out, you should water your tree.

Temperature and Humidity

Black gum trees grow naturally in a variety of climates and are hardy both to cold and to heat. Humidity also usually isn’t an issue for the tree, as long as there is good air flow among its branches. Otherwise, high humidity and cramped branches can lead to fungal growth.

Fertilizer

Feed this tree annually in the fall using a slow-release granular fertilizer. In general, use 2 cups of fertilizer per every inch of trunk diameter, measuring the trunk at about 4 feet off the ground. Sprinkle the fertilizer into the soil around the tree in an area that extends 1.5 times the distance from the trunk to the tips of the branches. 

Black Gum Tree Varieties


Varieties of the black gum tree include:

  • ‘Zydeco Twist’: This variety features somewhat twisting branches, which really stand out during the winter months when the tree is bare.
  • Autumn Cascades’: This weeping variety is known for its especially attractive yellow, orange, and red fall foliage.
  • ‘Wildfire’: This tree will produce red leaves throughout the growing season.
  • ‘Firestarter’: A trademarked cultivar with early, vivid red fall coloring that does not produce fruit.
  • ‘Tupelo Tower’: This tree has a somewhat columnar growth habit and turns to shades of gold, amber, and scarlet in the fall.

Pruning

Black gum tree doesn’t require much pruning beyond trimming branches to retain your desired shape and removing any parts that are damaged, diseased, or dead. If any of the lower branches are drooping downward, you can prune those off if you wish to make walking around the tree easier. The best time for general pruning is in the late fall or the late winter after the coldest weather has passed, though you can cut out problematic branches at any point.

Propagating Black Gum Tree

Propagating black gum tree from cuttings is difficult. Growing it from the seed yields unpredictable results—you won't necessarily get the same attractive fall color that you admire in the parent tree. In addition, the propagation of trademarked cultivars is prohibited. Therefore, if you would like to plant a black gum tree, it is recommended to source it from a nursery.

Potting and Repotting Black Gum Tree

Black gum tree is a large landscape tree with a long tap root that is not suitable for container growing.

Overwintering

The tree is hardy to USDA zone 3 and does not require winter protection.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

Black gum tree typically doesn’t have any serious issues with pests or diseases. Keep an eye out for leaf spots, cankers, leaf miners, and scale. Look for discolored or damaged foliage, as well as abnormal-looking bark and branches.

FAQ
  • Are black gum trees messy?

    The tree drops a considerable amount of fruit, which litters sidewalks and needs to be picked up, or else it can become a slipping hazard. Therefore it is recommended to plant the tree away from walkways, patios, and other areas that get a lot of foot traffic.

  • What is the difference between black gum tree and sweet gum tree?

    They are two different species. American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraci) is a much larger forest tree that can grow 75 to 130 feet tall.

  • Do black gum trees produce gum balls?

    No, black gum produces small fleshy fruit whereas the sweet gum tree produces spiky gum balls.

Article Sources
The Spruce uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Abrams, Marc D. Tales From the Blackgum, a Consummate Subordinate Tree. BioScience, 57,4,347-359, 2007, doi:10.1641/B570409

  2. Nyssa sylvatica. North Carolina State University Cooperative Extension.