Examining the blackgum tree
Blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica), also called tupelo gum and sour gum, can be found in almost any woodland in our area. It grows on a wide range of conditions, from wet areas to dry ridge tops.
Probably the easiest feature to identify larger blackgum trees is the bark, which is dark gray to black, and with a blocky pattern. The leaves are roughly egg shaped, smooth edged, and have a broad point on the end. The leaf is broadest at the top of the blade rather than the more typical bottom. Branches are often at a 90-degree angle to the trunk, and the smallest twigs tend to bend backward towards the trunk. The fruit is a blue-black berry that hangs from a long stem in twos and threes.
In the woods, blackgum is moderately tolerant to shade, and is often found growing below the main tree canopy. But it can also reach into the canopy and becomes a large tree. Only occasionally found in pure stands, it is most often a scattered in mixture with almost every forest type. Blackgum is not an important timber tree, having poor form and a cross-grain that makes it very difficult to split for firewood. It can be used as pulpwood and rough lumber for crate and pallet material. It is very susceptible to damage from wildfire or mechanical injury, which allows a decay fungus to enter and hollow out the center of the trunk.
Many wildlife species consume the berries when they ripen in the fall. Turkey, wood duck, robin, and several other bird species utilize the fruit, as well as black bear and fox. Deer and beaver feed on the winter twigs and buds. The tree is a good plant for pollinators, producing abundant nectar for honey. And since the tree is prone to be hollow, it provides shelters and dens for cavity dwelling wildlife.
In pioneer times a hollow blackgum was cut to short lengths and made into beehives, hence the old name bee gum. While avoiding it for firewood, farmers did use the wood for handles and rough lumber. The bark had reported medicinal properties and was used by Native Americans to induce vomiting and as worm medicine for children.
Blackgum is a gorgeous ornamental if given plenty of room. It is attractive at all times of year, but especially in the fall, when it is produces brilliant red foliage
Steve Roark is a retired area forester from Tazewell, Tennessee.