Wood of the Month:

Tupelo Trees Offer Fall Drama, Tasty Honey

By Jo-Ann Kaiser

FAMILY NAME

Nyssa sylvatica and Nyssa aquatica of the Family Cornaceae.

COMMON NAMES

Black tupelo, water tupelo, gum, sour gum, bowl gum, pepperidge, stinkwood, wild peartree and yellow gum tree.

HEIGHT/WEIGHT

Trees range in height from 50 to 130 feet, averaging 80 feet in the United States (trees grow taller in the wild). The wood is rated moderately heavy at 35 pounds per cubic foot.

PROPERTIES

Care is needed when drying to avoid warping and twisting because of the tree’s interlocked grain, which also makes wood difficult to split and nail. Pre-drilling is recommended. Wood has a fine, uniform texture. It is moderately heavy, moderately hard and stiff and moderately high in shock resistance. Wood sometimes is difficult to work with hand tools, but it machines well. Material glues well and takes paint and finishes very well. Experts recommend sealing before staining.

The tupelo is celebrated for its exquisite honey and for being a harbinger of autumn — one of the first trees to offer a blaze of red and gold leaves. Tupelos are also a popular source of lumber and veneer.

Tupelo’s many uses include the production of paper and pulp. Its wood also is utilized in crafting kitchen cabinets, baskets, crates, cigar boxes, pallets, coffins, trim and moulding, furniture and furniture parts. Its tough, strong properties make it ideal for tool handles as well as for gun stocks, rough flooring and farm equipment. It also is used to make scaffolding, woodenware, railroad cross-ties and equipment parts. The tupelo wood cut for veneer is known to wear very well. Jimmy Clay, assistant operation manager, NC/VA Division of the Coastal Lumber Co., sells tupelo veneer logs and reports that it has become an export favorite, especially to Taiwan and Vietnam. “It’s a hot wood right now. We believe the clients are slicing it for veneer. It’s popular because it is a very light colored wood —the sapwood anyway — and it takes a stain very well, so you can stain it to resemble cherry, mahagony or walnut, for example.”

Clay says that tupelo is also a very popular wood for carving. “It’s a good wood for making ducks and other carving projects.” The carving material often comes from the buttressed or butt parts of the log that grow at the base of the tree underwater. “We cut that off before shipping the logs.”

Favored as ornamental trees, tupelos are native to eastern North America, but are popular around the world in temperate climates, primarily for the leaves’ exceptional fall color — mostly red and some golden.

Black gum tupelo trees sometimes decay in an unusual manner — from the top of the tree downward. These hollowed-out trees can be cut into parts and used for beehives, called bee-gums. Larger pieces of hollowed- out trees have been historically used as rabbit traps, or rabbit-gums.

The Sweet Treat

Tupelo is also the name for the world-famous honey that is produced from the tupelo gum tree, primarily Nyssa ogeechee, which grow along the Apalachicola, Choctahatchee and Ochloockonee rivers and their tributaries in Florida. Light golden amber with a slight green tinge, tupelo honey is distinguished by its taste and color and the fact that it will never crystallize. Its smooth properties are attributed to a very high fructose content. High production costs, which include accessing the river locations and verifying the purity of the honey, make tupelo one of the most expensive honeys.

What’s in a Name?

Tupelo does not fit the normal profile of gum trees. “Nowhere on the American continent has anyone every expressed from this dry and disobliging vegetable one fluid ounce of any sort of gum,” writes Donald Culross Peattie in his book, A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America. “The title of pepperidge seems derived from an old English word for the barberry bush.” Culross Peattie says the name tupelo is most likely a blending of the words for tree and swamp in the Creek language.

Tupelos of the Nyssa sylvatica (“of the forest”) species are also known as black gum, sour gum, black tupelo, bowl gum, pepperidge, stinkwood, wild peartree, ogeechee tupelo, gopher plum, ogeechee plum and yellow gum. Nyssa aquatica (“grows in water”) is known as water tupelo, tupelo gum and swamp tupelo. The entire genus Nyssa is taken from the name for the ancient Greek water nymph, Nysa. True to its name, the tree thrives in wet growing conditions, especially in swamps or by rivers and lakes.

Despite its many names, wood from the various tupelos is said to be very similar in appearance and properties. Tupelo heartwood is light brown to gray and blends into the much lighter colored and wide sapwood.

Nyssa aquatica, or water tupelo, grows in the southern region of the United States. All of the tupelos, except black tupelo, grow principally in the southeastern United States. Nyssa sylvatica or black tupelo, is found from western Maine to northern Florida, and in Michigan, Missouri, northeastern Texas and Oklahoma, but it is most abundant in North Atlantic states and in the Ohio Valley. Nyssa sylvatica also grows in southern Canada and central and southern Mexico.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.