Appearance''Nyssa sylvatica'' grows to 20–25 metres tall, rarely to 35 metres , with a trunk diameter of 50–100 centimetres , rarely up to 170 centimetres . These trees typically have a straight trunk with the branches extending outward at right angles. The bark is dark gray and flaky when young, but it becomes furrowed with age, resembling alligator hide on very old stems. The twigs of this tree are reddish-brown, usually hidden by a greyish skin. The pith is chambered with greenish partitions.
The leaves of this species are variable in size and shape. They can be oval, elliptical, or obovate, and 5–12 cm long. They have lustrous upper surfaces, with entire, often wavy margins. The foliage turns purple in autumn, eventually becoming an intense bright scarlet. Deer are extremely fond of the leaves on seedlings and saplings, to the point where large populations of them can make establishment of the tree almost impossible. For comparison, mature trees are largely left alone.
The flowers are very small, in greenish-white in clusters at the top of a long stalk and a rich source or nectar for bees. They are often dioecious so a male and female tree in proximity is required to set seed, however, many trees are also polygamo-dioecious, which means they have both male and female flowers on the same tree. The fruit is a black-blue, ovoid stone fruit, about 10 mm long with a thin, oily, bitter-to-sour tasting flesh and very popular with small bird species. There are from one to three fruits together on a long slender stalk. They are a valuable energy food for birds, especially the American robin.
''Nyssa sylvatica'' forms a large deep taproot when young that makes transplanting difficult. Because of this, it is fairly uncommon in cultivation and the nursery trade.
Additional characteristics include:
⤷ Bark: Light reddish brown, deeply furrowed and scaly. Branchlets at first pale green to orange, sometimes smooth, often downy, later dark brown.
⤷ Wood: Pale yellow, sapwood white; heavy, strong, very tough, hard to split, not durable in contact with the soil. Used for turnery. Sp. gr., 0.6353; weight of cu. ft., 39.59.
⤷ Winter buds: Dark red, obtuse, one-fourth of an inch long. Inner scales enlarge with the growing shoot, becoming red before they fall.
⤷ Leaves: Alternate, often crowded at the end of the lateral branches, simple, linear, oblong to oval, two to five inches long, one-half to three inches broad, wedge-shaped or rounded at base, entire, with margin slightly thickened, acute or acuminate. They come out of the bud conduplicate, coated beneath with rusty tomentum, when full grown are thick, dark green, very shining above, pale and often hairy beneath. Feather-veined, midrib and primary veins prominent beneath. In autumn they turn bright scarlet, or yellow and scarlet. Petioles one-quarter to one-half an inch long, slender or stout, terete or margined, often red.
⤷ Flowers: May, June, when leaves are half grown. Polygamodiœcious, yellowish green, borne on slender downy peduncles. Staminate in many-flowered heads; pistillate in two to several flowered clusters.
⤷ Calyx: Cup-shaped, five-toothed.
⤷ Corolla: Petals five, imbricate in bud, yellow green, ovate, thick, slightly spreading, inserted on the margin of the conspicuous disk.
⤷ Stamens: Five to twelve. In staminate flowers exserted, in pistillate short, often wanting.
⤷ Pistil: Ovary inferior, one to two-celled; style stout, exserted, reflexed above the middle. Entirely wanting in sterile flower. Ovules, one in each cell.
⤷ Fruit: Fleshy drupe, one to three from each flower cluster. Ovoid, two-thirds of an inch long, dark blue, acid. Stone more or less ridged. October.
Naming''Nyssa sylvaticas genus name '''' refers to a Greek water nymph; the species epithet ''sylvatica'' refers to its woodland habitat.
The species' common name tupelo is of Native American origin, coming from the Creek words ''ito'' ‘tree’ and ''opilwa'' ‘swamp’; it was in use by the mid-18th century
While these trees are often known as simply "tupelo", the fuller name black tupelo helps distinguish it from the other species of the tupelo genus '''', some of which have overlapping ranges, such as water tupelo and swamp tupelo . The name "tupelo" is used primarily in the American South; northward and in Appalachia, the tree is more commonly called the black gum or the sour gum, although no part of the plant is particularly gummy. Both of these names contrast it with a different tree species with a broadly overlapping range, the sweet gum '''', which does produce an aromatic resin. Another common name used occasionally in the Northeast is ''pepperidge.''
On Martha's Vineyard, in Massachusetts, this species is called "beetlebung", perhaps for its use in making the mallet known as a beetle, used for hammering bungs into barrels.
Distribution''Nyssa sylvatica'' grows in various uplands and in alluvial stream bottoms from southwestern Maine and New York, to extreme southern Ontario, central Michigan, Illinois, and central Missouri, south to southern Florida, eastern Texas, and eastern Oklahoma. It also occurs locally in central and southern Mexico. Optimum development is made on lower slopes and terraces in the Southeastern United States.
Habitat''Nyssa sylvatica'' is found in a variety of upland and wetland habitats in its extensive range. Its flowers are an important source of honey and its fruits are important to many bird species. Hollow trunks provide nesting or denning opportunities for bees and various mammals. It is the longest living non-clonal flowering plant in Eastern North America, capable of obtaining ages of over 650 years.''Nyssa sylvatica'' is found in a wide range of climates, due to its extensive distribution. It commonly grows in both the creek bottoms of the southern coastal plains, to altitudes of about 900 meters in the Southern Appalachians. These trees grow best on well-drained, light-textured soils on the low ridges of second bottoms and on the high flats of silty alluvium. In the uplands it grows best on the loams and clay loams of lower slopes and coves.
The species occurs 35 different forest cover types. When found on drier upper slopes and ridges, it is seldom of log size or quality.
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