Tupelo Botanical Name

Tupelo is known by many names-black gum, sour gum, water tupelo, pepperidge swamp tupelo, bay poplar, olive tree, swamp gum, tupelo gum, cotton gum, and yellow gum. Historically, lumbermen and foresters have insisted on calling this tree gum; however, a gum fluid has never been associated with the tree. The title of pepperidge seems derived from an old English word for the barberry bush. Tupelo is translated from the Creek Indian language-eto, meaning “tree,” and opelwv, meaning “swamp.”

The botanical names for these two trees are Nyssa sylvatica and Nyssa aquatica. It is derived from the Latin name Nyssa, a water nymph of classical Greek mythology. Sylvatica means of the forest, while aquatica means of the water.

This small family of three genera and eight species of shrubs and trees is native to eastern North America and China, including Tibet. Only tupelos are native to North America.

The tupelo genus is small as well, with five species-two in eastern Asia and the remaining three in eastern North America. Fossil records of preglacial species indicate that tupelos were at one time more widely distributed across Europe, Asia, and North America.

Characteristics and Use

Although not well known, these large, abundant trees offer tremendous rewards for the manufacturer. The tree reaches a maximum of 125 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter. Average-sized trees are 60-80 feet high and 1-3 feet in diameter. The simple leaves are two to three inches long, shiny, and dark green in color. The fruit is a dark blue fleshy berry, resembling a small plum, while the bark of old trees resembles alligator hide.

The wood of the different tupelos is quite similar in appearance and properties. It has fine, uniform texture and interlocked grain. Tupelo wood is rated as moderately heavy (35 pounds per cubic ft.), moderately strong, hard, stiff, and moderately high in shock resistance.

Tupelo is low-to-moderate in decay resistance. Its color ranges from a very white sapwood to yellowish or brownish-gray streaked heartwood with an indistinct pattern. The lighter colored sapwood is generally several inches wide. Classified as moderately weak when used for beams or posts, the wood is moderately limber, below average in matching properties, and intermediate in nail-holding and resistance to splitting. The submerged portions of trees growing in swamps or flooded areas contain wood that is much lighter in weight than that from upper portions of the same trees.

Tupelo is used for lumber, veneer, pulpwood, and to some extent for railway ties and slack cooperage. Utilized primarily for shipping containers and interior parts of furniture, the lumber is also used for crate and basket veneers, box shooks, rollers, mallets, rough floors, mine timbers, and fuel. It is used extensively in the veneer and panel industry for crossbanding, plywood cores, and backs. The wood can be readily pulped and is used for high-grade book and magazine papers. In the past, the hollow trunks were used for “bee gums” to hold beehives.

It takes a finish, including enamel, very well. Therefore, it is often used for furniture, fixtures, woodworking, cabinets, and novelties. Readily available as lumber and veneer, it is considered an inexpensive wood.

Distribution and Outlook

Water tupelo grows in swamps and in the flood plains of streams, where it might be submerged a few months each winter and spring. Often it grows in pure stands along the Coastal Plain from Virginia to Texas, and along the Mississippi River up to southern Illinois. Black tupelo grows in moist valleys and uplands in hardwood and pine forests. It is located in the eastern half of the United States, Canada and Mexico and has the more plentiful growing range of the two tupelos. These trees are fast growing in well-drained bottomlands, but slow growing in swampy sites. They are long-lived and begin flowering and fruiting when they are about 30 years old. Flowers appear in spring when leaves are nearly grown, while the fruits mature in autumn. The small, greenish flowers are an excellent source of nectar for bees. Black bear and foxes frequently eat the fruit, while deer and beaver browse the twigs and foliage. It is a food source for wood ducks, wild turkey, robins, pileated woodpeckers, mockingbirds, and thrushes. Brilliant, blazing red autumn coloring and abundant blue fruit make these trees excellent for shade and ornamental planting in many subdivisions.

Tupelo wood is important to the lumber and veneer industry. The 1992 survey of net volume of sawtimber covering the eastern United States indicates that there are 33.6 billion board feet of tupelo, representing four percent of the total volume available of all sawtimber in the United States. About two-thirds of the production of tupelo lumber is from the Southern states.


Because of the interlocked grain, drying tupelo lumber requires extra care. The wood is difficult to dry because it shrinks greatly during seasoning and has a tendency to warp because of its grain. It requires special seasoning and drying before it can be successfully glued.

Note: This feature is part of a continuing series on American tree species appearing monthly in Southern Lumberman magazine provided by the Southeastern Lumber Manufacturers Association.