October 2022: Tupelo
Homegrown Habitat provides advice on what and where to plant, one per month, written by Sarah W. Middeleer, a landscape designer whose work focuses on ecology and designing for wildlife. Write to her at email@example.com.
October 24, 2022 — Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) is native to so many regions (from Ontario south to Florida, Texas and Mexico, and west to Michigan and Wisconsin) that it has many other common names, including nyssa, sour gum, black gum, and pepperidge.
This elegant deciduous tree is at its ornamental best in fall, when its foliage transitions from yellow to apricot, orange, and bright scarlet.
Yet tupelo has other beautiful characteristics: its trunk is straight and interestingly furrowed; the branches extend from the trunk horizontally to form a neatly pyramidal crown (although some authors prefer the more irregular crown that tupelo develops as it ages); it displays dark-blue oval fruits in late summer and fall; and its leaves are shiny and emerald green before their spectacular fall display.
One of my personal favorites, a tupelo occupies one corner of my property like a noble guardian, growing more beautiful by the year.
Tupelo serves a variety of wildlife. Its fruit is eaten by many birds, including songbirds and Wild Turkey, and is one of the most important food sources for migrating songbirds in fall. Reptiles, tree frogs, bats, and other wildlife find refuge in the natural hollows that form in the trunk. And tupelo serves as a larval host to at least 28 species of moths and butterflies, including the tupelo leaf miner moth.
Tupelo flowers are not showy, although they are an excellent nectar source for bees. However, they are botanically very interesting! Each tree is primarily male or female (meaning that it bears mostly male or female flowers), but will also contain perfect flowers (meaning that they contain male and female parts and are self pollinating). So, in a wonderful survival strategy, even male trees will have a few of the fruits whose seeds can help to create more trees.
If you’d like to buy a tupelo to provide food for birds, try to go shopping in the late summer or fall when you’ll be able to see which ones have the most fruit (or request a specimen that has plenty of visible fruit).
Fall is the optimal time to plant trees and shrubs because the heat and drought of summer have passed, and the precipitation in fall and winter help the new plant to become established with little stress. And when those beautiful tupelo leaves finally drop, leave them at the base of the tree to nourish it and to keep its roots protected, as well as to protect beneficial insects that overwinter in leaf litter.
Tupelo will grow slowly to a height of 30-50 feet, and its canopy will spread 20-30 feet. It grows well in full sun to part shade in moist, acidic soils. But tupelo also tolerates medium-dry and poorly drained clay soils and, surprisingly, also tolerates some drought and even salt.
Tupelo is an excellent specimen tree and also performs well as a street tree. Consider it for a rain garden, because it can also tolerate inundation. But wherever you plant this wonderful tree, choose its location carefully, because its long taproot makes transplanting very difficult.
Tupelo is considered to be deer resistant, but young shoots may be nibbled. If you live in an area with heavy deer pressure, consider caging or spraying your young tupelo for the first few years. Planting cinnamon ferns (in shadier locations) or mountain mint (on sunnier sites) around the tupelo will also discourage deer and will be very attractive over time.
As always, please send questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. I love hearing from readers!
Sources: Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, sixth edition, by Michael A. Dirr, Stipes Publishing LLC, Champlain, Ill., rev. 2009; Native Trees for Northeast Landscapes, by Heather McCargo and Anna Fialkoff, Wild Seed Project, 2021; The Northeast Native Plant Primer, by Uri Lorimer, Timber Press, 2022; Brooklyn Botanic Garden: BBG.org; Missouri Botanical Garden: missouribotanicalgarden.org; North Carolina Extension Gardener: plants.ces.ncsu.edu