In Praise of The Tupelo

This past weekend has been a blur. We had a symposium on trees at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens on Saturday and then a propagation workshop for most of the day on Monday. The highlight was having Dr. Michael Dirr in town to speak at the symposium and lead the propagation workshop for our guests. If you’ve had the good fortune to spend any time with Dr. Dirr and his wife, Bonnie, you know that you need to keep your ears open and be ready to absorb as much information as possible. The both love to read, travel, and share information about life and plants.

One plant in particular that Dr. Dirr kept bringing up time and time again was the tupelo tree or Nyssa sylvatica. Tupelo or black gum as it is also called, is native from Ontario down to Texas and Florida. We have a few plants that are native here on the CMBG property. It is thought that these might be the northeastern most trees in North America. We are trying to clone these trees in the hopes that they can provide some cold hardiness to the group. (By the way, did you know that Van Morrison’s song “Tupelo Honey,” refers to the honey that bees make after getting nectar from these trees?)

Nyssa fall color

Once established, Nyssa sylvatica will form a strongly pyramidal tree with an ultimate height of around 60′ tall and around half that distance in width. Well-grown trees are spectacular in form and remind me of what trees look like when my kids draw trees (other than the rounded, puff-ball shaped trees they sometimes draw). Tupelo should be grown in an acidic soil and will grow best in a low area with adequate moisture with well-drained soil. Nyssa has a strong taproot once established so it is best to move the trees when they are younger. Larger trees can be moved but require a larger rootball.

Of course, the most spectacular quality of the tupelo is its fall color. It is crimson red. The sight of a Nyssa in fall color on a bright cool day in autumn will make you fall in love with this tree.

Wildfire Nyssa

There are numerous cultivars coming onto the market with many already available for purchase. After hearing Dr. Dirr speak, there seem to be more cultivars in the works and possibly coming down the pike. Some of these cultivars include: ‘Autumn Cascades’ (weeping form), Red Rage (leaf spot resistant), ‘Sheri’s Cloud’ (variegated), ‘Wildfire’ (brilliant red new growth), and ‘Zydeco Twist’ (twisting, contorted growth).

Sheri's Cloud

Tupelo is a wonderful native tree for a landscape that has the room to let it grow and show off its form. The new cultivars add even more opportunity to try this plant in the landscape. Are you growing Nyssa sylvatica or any of these cultivars?

– Rodney

Images: plants.chaletnursery.com, waysidegardens.com, jcraulstonarboretum.wordpress.com

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rodney eason

Rodney Eason - Director of Horticulture and Plant Curator at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, father of 4, husband to a Renaissance woman. I spent the first part of my life in North Carolina, the middle in Pennsylvania, and now I am determined to become a Mainer  while keeping my southern drawl. I consider the rhetorical question, "you're not from around here, are you?" a compliment. I love great gardens, beautiful plants, and inspiring architecture. Because of this, I am on a lifelong quest to find a garden that artistically combines beautiful plants while being centered around an evocative building. For me, this would be Beatrix Farrand's Dumbarton Oaks, with the plants of Lotusland and Chanticleer, around Fay Jones' Thorncrown Chapel. My wife and I are now making our new home and garden in a 130 year old New England house with a farmer's porch near the Damariscotta River in coastal Maine. When our kids get into college, we want to hike the Appalachian Trail as a family over a summer break. My likes (in random order): the smell of fresh basil and rosemary, bold foliage, India Pale Ale, good running shoes, Top Gear, the smell of New England in the fall (it reminds me a bit of English Leather, which my grandfather wore), and the sound of our family laughing together around the dinner table. I dream of one day owning an old Toyota 4X4 pick-up and seeing the Avett Brothers in concert.
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2 Comments

  1. Laurrie on July 2, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    Love this tree– I am growing 5 Nyssa sylvaticas here. Two are prominent in my front yard as specimen trees and they don’t disappoint. Your pictures show exactly why! The other three are in back and are just as beautiful. Slow growers, but worth it. You won’t get tupelo honey from N. sylvatica. The famous honey comes from the southern one, N. ogeche. But there are so many other reasons to plant this gorgeous northern tupelo. Thanks for highlighting it with such great photos.

  2. Jeff Flanigan on August 31, 2016 at 12:40 am

    Hi, Very nice post! I don’t currently have any of the Nyssa cultivars described but I do have a connection with N. S.’Sheri’s Cloud’. I am the guy that found the original sapling in a road ditch in the Ouachita mts. I am very curious to know as soon as anyone who has planted any of these sees evidence of gender. As you know, Nyssa Sylvatica is polygamo-dioecious so a male tree will rarely have any fruit and a female rarely produces pollen. The original was too young and was destroyed by road maintenance shortly after I collected scions. So I’d be very grateful if anyone who has a tree that reaches maturity could shoot me an email.

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