Vascular Plants of North Carolina
Account for Blackgum - Nyssa sylvatica   Marshall
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Section 6 » Order Cornales » Family Nyssaceae
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AuthorMarshall
DistributionEssentially throughout the state, but absent from parts of the eastern Coastal Plain; scarce to locally absent east of Hertford and Beaufort counties.

This is a widespread Eastern species, ranging north to ME, ON, and southern WI, and south to central FL and eastern TX.
AbundanceCommon across the Mountains and Piedmont; fairly common in most of the Coastal Plain, but very rare to absent in eastern counties north and south of Albemarle and Pamlico sounds. Clearly less numerous in the Coastal Plain than elsewhere owing to less widespread upland forests.
HabitatThis is the only upland species of Nyssa in our area, being widely found in many forest types. It is a major understory component in Dry-Mesic Oak-Hickory Forest, Dry Oak-Hickory Forest, Montane Oak-Hickory Forest, Pine-Oak/Heath, and in a number of other dry to mesic forest types. It does occasionally occur in some bottomlands, and a form also occurs in some pine flatwoods or savannas, where it can easily be confused with N. biflora.
See also Habitat Account for General Dry-Mesic Hardwood Forests
PhenologyFlowers from April to June, and fruits from August to October.
IdentificationThis is a very familiar medium deciduous tree seen almost daily by many biologists. It grows to an average height of about 75’, rarely taller. The leaves are very “ordinary” – alternate, generally elliptical, entire, and of medium size, about 4” long. However, the leaf tip may show a slight acuminate tip, and they are somewhat shiny above; the very similar and equally common Eastern Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) has similar leaves that are usually not shiny above. Persimmon has tiny and round black buds, different from the more typical conical “scaled” bud of a tupelo. The flowers and fruits of the two are completely different, if visible. Tupelo has rather small purple and rounded dangling drupes, whereas Persimmon has the familiar large orange-colored fruit. In slightly damp soil, this species can be quite difficult to separate from Swamp Tupelo (N. biflora), and as they were formerly considered as a single species, there can be some seeming “blending” of field marks in such marginal wetlands. Swamp Tupelo has narrower and usually more oblanceolate leaves with a rounded tip. Upland Backgum leaves (most of them) possess 1-2 small toothlike projections on one or both leaf margins (absent in Swamp Blackgum). Both species often show red leaves in summer, well before the typically fall season “change of color”.
Taxonomic CommentsThough this species has never been in doubt, many references list Swamp Tupelo as a variety of it. Weakley (2018) mentions that there is a “swamp variant” of N. sylvatica that occurs on some wet savannas in coastal NC, growing with Pond Pine (Pinus serotina); it is definitely not just N. biflora.

Other Common Name(s)Often written as Black Gum or Black-gum. Also, Black Tupelo, Sour Gum. As the genus members are primarily known as tupelos, and the other two species in the state are named as Water Tupelo and Swamp Tupelo, seemingly Black Tupelo is the better common name for N. sylvatica. For now, however, the use of Blackgum is more prevalent in references.
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