Vascular Plants of North Carolina
Account for Water Tupelo - Nyssa aquatica   L.
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Section 6 » Order Cornales » Family Nyssaceae
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DistributionScattered across the Coastal Plain, but oddly local and “missing” from a few expected areas. Found across the province, but very scarce to absent in the Sandhills, much of the south-central Coastal Plain, and a few areas near the coast. Most widespread in the northern third, and near the SC border, in the province. Casual in the extreme eastern Piedmont (Wake County, where its occurrence is of uncertain provenance, and Richmond County where definitely native by the Pee Dee River).

This is a mainly Coastal Plain species ranging from eastern VA, southern IL, and southeastern MO, south to northern FL and eastern TX. It is essentially absent in montane regions and most of the Piedmont, except in AL.
AbundanceVery local, but can be common to dominant in some swamps, such as along the Roanoke River, Lumber River, and Waccamaw River. Rare to uncommon in many areas, and not often found along creeks or smaller rivers.
HabitatThis species favors frequently flooded swamps, with some or much standing water, but normally where the waters are at least slowly moving. This includes both brownwater (e.g., Roanoke) and blackwater (e.g., Lumber) floodplains. It can occasionally be found in isolated waters (lake and pond margins), but it is mainly a species of the wetter floodplains. The Richmond County population dominates a portion of a backwater of the Pee Dee River.
PhenologyFlowers in April and May, and fruits in September and October.
IdentificationThis is a familiar deciduous swamp tree that grows to medium to tall height, to about 80-90 feet tall. The crown is usually fairly narrow, and the species may grow in extensive stands, though often mixed with Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum). The trunk base is normally swollen, but the trunk is normally straight. The alternate leaves are quite large, being somewhat elliptical, mainly entire but with a few scattered teeth, to about 6 inches long. The scattering of teeth give the leaves an uneven (not smoothly rounded) margin. The petioles are often at least 1inch long. In fall, the large and elongated dark purple fruit (drupe) is conspicuous, being 1-1.5 inches long and dangling below the branches. Swamp Tupelo (N. biflora), which can often grow with Water Tupelo, has smaller leaves that seldom have teeth, are more obovate, and have a more rounded leaf tip.
Taxonomic CommentsNone

Other Common Name(s)Tupelo Gum, Cotton Gum, Large Tupelo, Water Gum
State RankS4
Global RankG5
State Status
US Status
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B.A. SorrieRichmond Co., depression in floodplain of Pee Dee River, May 2021. RichmondPhoto_natural
B.A. SorrieRichmond County, oxbow lake by Pee Dee River. RichmondPhoto_natural
Scott PohlmanNyssa aquatica. Walnut Creek floodplain, Wake County; 2 September 2019. WakePhoto_natural
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