As the cooler temperatures of fall arrive, color seems to shift from ground level upward into the midrange shrubs and trees. Browns, tans, soft reds and yellows begin to appear in the foliage of the dogwoods, redbuds and crape myrtles. The Japanese maples begin their morph into full color. Flowers appear in the camellia sasanquas. High above this layer of soft color, bright jewels of red brighten the already yellow-orange upper treescape as the gum trees really begin to show off.
There are two common types of gum tree in East Texas: sweetgum and black gum. We all know and love the colors of the sweetgum, but not so much the gum balls that litter the ground beneath this beautiful tree in the fall. Enter Nyssa sylvatica var. sylvatica Cornaceae — the black gum. To some, its color may even exceed that of the sweetgum.
The black gum, also known as black Tupelo or sourgum, is native to East Texas’ moist well-drained soils. A deep taproot provides it with water in drier areas but makes it difficult to transplant. That may be a reason that it is hard to find in nurseries. It is considered a slow-growing medium to large tree, reaching a potential 100 or more feet in height with a straight trunk of up to 3 feet in diameter. Many horizontal branches form a narrow, oval crown.
On younger trees, the bark is smooth and gray, developing furrows and flat ridges as the tree ages. Older bark turns darker gray to brown or black and is broken into thick, distinctly squarish blocks.
Male and female flowers appear on separate trees or on the same tree as long, slender clusters. The male has many-flowered heads, the female several-flowered clusters. In the spring a small drupe of bluish-black berries, each containing one seed, develops from the female blossom.
The leaves are simple with smooth edges. They are alternate and ovate in shape, dark green on top, but a paler green on the underside. In early fall the deciduous black gum prepares to drop its leaves. The shiny, dark green leaves turn brilliant red, yellow, orange and purple. In fact, it seems to glow against the sky when the sunlight shines through its multicolor leaves.
If you are looking for a spectacular fall color tree for your landscape, consider the consistent, easy care, native black gum.
The Smith County Master Gardener program is a volunteer organization in connection with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.