As a dark-horse landscape contender, the black gum tree (Nyssa sylvatica) is increasing in popularity. The primary reason for its increased use is because few trees match the adaptability of this native tree. Black gum is useful to people, wildlife and the environment, providing its three-fold benefit while being forgiving of adverse circumstances.

Tree Canopy
credit: Dave Long/iStock/Getty Images

Native Adaptability

Black gum is an eastern North American native tree with a north-south range that extends from Ontario to Florida and west to Texas. It grows in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 9, where it prospers in full sun. However, it is also shade-tolerant and thrives as an understory tree Although it is somewhat drought-tolerant, it flourishes in moist soils, and can even grow in standing water. Compared to most trees, black gum has a higher resistance to air pollution, and it is virtually pest-free.

Male and Female Trees

Black gum typically is dioecious, which means trees either bear male or female flowers. Some trees, however, may bear both types of flowers. The tiny greenish flowers are borne in spring. Although they are not showy, they are very attractive to bees, which make flavorful honey from the nectar. Male and female trees produce flowers, but in the absence of a male pollinizer, a female tree cannot bear fruit. Fertilized flowers on female trees produce 1/2-inch-long fruit that feeds birds, rodents, foxes and other mammals.

Outstanding Fall Color

As a deciduous tree, black gum drops its leaves in autumn after they turn a brilliant scarlet-red color. Black gum is usually the first tree to provide autumn leaf color. Because the leaves are thin and oval-shaped, they allow enough sunlight to penetrate the canopy, which makes the tree appear to glow. Black gum is a suitable substitute for one of its relatives, sweet gum (Liquidambar styraciflua), which grows in USDA zones 5 through 9. Both trees share similar autumn leaf color, but black gum does not litter the landscape with spiky fruits as sweet gum does.

Challenging Landscape Solutions

A tree that is only one-third to one-half as wide as it is tall is suitable for smaller landscapes. Black gum's form is narrow; with an oval or pyramidal shape that may reach 65 to 75 feet, but with only a 25- to 35-foot span. In sloped yards that wash away in heavy rains, black gum helps with erosion control. You can also plant black gum as a rain-garden plant in low spots with poor drainage where standing water drains slowly.