Stunning Black Gum for Home Landscapes

As a horticulture nerd, I am always a bit perplexed why we get stuck in tree and shrub ruts. Maples, pears, dogwoods…that’s the tree rut I’m talking about. There are so many other trees worthy of a spot in our yards and landscapes.  Here’s one very much worth it.

Black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) displays all the things desirable in a tree for home landscapes: clean, glossy foliage, brilliant fall color, unique thick bark, and few insect and disease problems.


young nyssa sylvatica

Young Nyssa sylvatica with distinct pyramid shape and stunning fall color (photo from

Out of the Nyssaceae family, only this genus, Nyssa, is native to North America and to Kentucky. The specific epithet, sylvatica, means ‘of the woods’. There are two common names for this tree: black gum, which refers to its dark leaves, and tupelo, which is derived from the Creek Indian name for the tree (ito opilwa).

With age, black gums decay from the top down and the tree becomes hollowed out. Hollow trees used to be cut down and then cut into short sections and used for bee hives thus the term bee gum. Black gum is one of the best honey-producing trees in the world.

The tree enjoys acidic soils, will adapt to extreme climates, tolerates wet conditions, and is resistant to drought.  Although it will grow in full sun or partial shade, fall color is enhanced by sunny conditions. Fall color is earlier than many trees and it colors up nicely in shades of yellow, orange, scarlet, and maroon.

The growth habit of black gum is distinctly pyramidal when young and may keep that habit into old age.  It may become rounded or flat-topped with age.  It is a slow-growing tree that will attain a height of 30 to 50’ and a width of 20 to 30’.

habit of mature black gum

Habit of mature black gum. (photo from

The flowers of black gum are small and insignificant.  The fruits are favored by wildlife but are not particularly ornamental. It should be planted in the early spring. It is hardy to USDA Zone 4.

Black gum was also bestowed with the honor of being a Theodore Klein Plant Award Winner in 2006.

Besides the straight species, there are several noteworthy selections that you might consider planting.

  • Red Rage® (‘Hayman Red’) has superb fall color, high leaf spot resistance and is one of the best new introductions.
  • ‘Autumn Cascades’ is a semi-weeping form with dark, shiny leaves turning orange-red in the fall. Note semi-weeping…it can look a bit disheveled and unruly, but some people like that.
  • Green Gable (‘NSUHH’) is a fairly new introduction with lustrous dark green leaves that turn red in the fall. Foliage is leaf spot resistant. Branches are upswept, creating a tighter, denser habit at a young age.
  • Fire Master™ was selected for its resistance to insects and diseases and improved hardiness.
  • ‘Wildfire’ is attractive in the spring for its reddish-purple new shoots. As the foliage matures, it changes back to dark, glossy, green.
  • ‘Zydeco Twist’ has contorted stems. It makes a great conversation starter.
    ‘zydeco twist_ black gum

    ‘Zydeco Twist’ black gum (photo from

    Submitted by Beth Wilson, Agent for Horticulture, Pulaski Co. Cooperative Extension