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What Is a Black Tupelo?

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  • Written By: R. Britton
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 01 September 2014
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A black tupelo is a deciduous tree. The botanical name of this plant is Nyssa sylvatica, and common names include sourgum and beetlebung. This medium sized tree is a member of the dogwood family. The black tupelo is tolerant of a wide range of growing conditions and is resistant to most pests and diseases. This species is native to the eastern United States and has been naturalized across most of the world. It is favored because of the striking autumn foliage color.

Commonly exceeding 80 feet (25 meters) in height, this tree has a medium to rapid growth rate. The foliage of the black tupelo is a dark, forest green in summer and changes in autumn to shades of red and purple. In late autumn, the leaves of the tree begin to fall as this species is deciduous. In early spring new pale green leaves begin to unfurl, turning darker as they mature.

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Although tolerant of most growing conditions, the black tupelo does not like heavy clay soils and is unable to tolerate long periods of drought. This species also does not care for very alkaline pH and prefers neutral to slightly acidic soil. With thick, deeply ridged bark, the black tupelo is able to withstand attacks from many deer species which are notorious for their bark stripping habits. This tree is not prone to many diseases, but can be infected by a black leaf spot disease which creates large black lesions on the leaves and can cause the leaves to die and fall early.

Clusters of very small white flowers appear in late spring and early summer, followed by plump oval fruits which are pale green at first, turning to dark blue to black when mature. The fruit of the black tupelo is both sour and bitter and is generally considered unpalatable for humans in its natural state. The mature fruits do provide a valuable food source for many animals and birds, however.

A huge number of bird species eat the fruit straight off the tree just as it reaches maturity. Fallen fruits are eaten by a wide variety of foraging animals. Each fruit contains a single, large seed. The seeds of the black tupelo are spread by wind, animal, and bird dispersal. Seeds are exposed to harsh winter conditions, thereby laying on top of nutrient rich earth. This prepares them for germination the following spring, when temperatures begin to rise.

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