Native to the eastern U.S., this is one of our finest large trees for fall colorand one of the first to color up in autumn, with leaves turning yellow, orange, burgundy, crimson, or bright scarlet before they drop. Display is best in the Upper and Middle South, where foliage turns color all at once; in the Lower and Coastal South, individual leaves tend to color and drop over a period of weeks, diminishing the show.
Grows at a slow to moderate rate, reaching 3060 ft. tall, 20 30 ft. wide; pyramidal when young, rounded or flat-topped when mature. Horizontal branches and rugged, nearly black bark create a dramatic picture against the winter sky. Plants are usually entirely male or entirely female, but some are a little of both. Flowers of all are inconspicuous. If pollinated by a nearby male, females bear bluish black fruit resembling small olives that ripens in late summer and autumn. Birds relish them, but fruit drop can make a mess on decks and driveways. Lustrous dark green leaves are oval and pointed, 36 in. long.
Because cuttings are hard to root and seedlings tend to grow slowly, relatively few named selections exist. Two choices, both with red fall color, are fast-growing: 'Forum', with conical form, and the weeping selection 'Autumn Cascade'. 'Red Rage' ('Hayman Red') offers glossy foliage, great fall color, and resistance to leaf spot. 'Zydeco Twist' features contorted stems and leaves for accent in the garden.
Two other American species, native to Southern swamps, are best appreciated in their natural settings. N. aquatica, water tupelo, is similar to N. sylvatica but has larger leaves and fruit and a trunk that is swollen at the base. N. ogeche, Ogeechee tupelo, is smaller (to 3040 ft. high) and has only negligible fall color. Its edible, 34-in., reddish fruit is pickled to make Ogeechee limes.
Black gum prefers moist, acid, well-drained soil containing lots of organic matter, but it takes poorly drained clay soil. It doesn't tolerate pollution, though, so it's not a good choice for city gardens. Superb shade or lawn tree; excellent for naturalized areas. Select a permanent location, as taproot makes it difficult to move later on. Trees that are cut down seem to produce suckers forever.