In the yard where I grew up in Columbia, SC, out near the street, was an area we would call a “natural area” these days, containing several old Dogwoods, two “Scrub Oaks," and a tree which looked and “acted” very much like a Dogwood, but which wasn’t. I always loved that tree. It is still there, seemingly the same size it was thirty years ago.
When I say that it “looked” like a Dogwood what I mean is that it had leaves very Dogwood like, though much glossier and waxy, and a little bigger. Not only that but the bark was very dark, fissured both horizontally and vertically, giving it an alligator skin appearance, like Dogwood bark. When I say it “acted” like a Dogwood I mean that it’s leaves turned a deep red in the fall, actually a deeper red than Dogwood leaves, and sometimes with a dash of deep orange thrown in.
But it wasn’t a Dogwood. It was a Black Gum. It didn’t have red berries but small blue-ish berries which hung from little stems. And it was bigger, that is, taller and bigger around. And it’s limbs were different. They were kind of squatty and tended to grow straight out from the trunk. And though I didn’t notice such things until older, its leaves, rather than growing from the stem in pairs on opposite sides of the stem, grew “alternately,” that is, a leaf here, then a little ways up on the other side of the stem, a leaf there, and so on.
I found out one day another way that Black Gums “act” like Dogwoods. Our town would be hit hard every winter or two by a freezing rain storm. Oh how the loblolly, shortleaf, and long leaf pine tree limbs would go a popping! They would sound like guns firing. Some of us crazy kids would go out limb dodging during these freezing rain storms. We’d stand around under a pine tree and every time we’d here a “pop” we’d take off. Usually it was a near by pine limb popping, but sometimes we’d clear out a second before a loblolly limb would land just where we had been standing. Did I ever say we were nuts?
Well, sometimes the deciduous trees did not fare well in these storms either. They tended not to lose a limb here or there as much as just topple over all together. A I got older I worked for a lot of elderly neighbors who would want a felled tree chain sawed into eighteen inch lengths and then split for firewood. Many of these would be Southern Red Oaks which split like the water of the Red Sea. It was downright fun to split that stuff.
But then other trees would fall, like Dogwoods. Ever tried to split a Dogwood? Well, don’t try. Just burn the thing whole in a hot fire. The same goes for Black Gum, but worse. You could chain saw through it but try to split one and the maul or axe would just as likely bounce up, or dig in just enough where you couldn’t pull axe and tree apart.
Because of this quality, Black Gum was revered like Dogwood for uses where high shock resistance was useful – such as in the growing industrial textile industry, or for toys, pulley rollers or gunstocks, or even as handles for mauls or heavy axes. It was the hardest wood around that I knew of, other than maybe hickory.
My neighborhood was full of ‘Possums. And ‘Possums loved the little berries or drupes of the Black Gum. Ever heard the jig “'Possum Up De Gum Tree”? Well, it’s the Black Gum’s little blue berries that that ole ‘Possum was after.
Black Gums are not that common, and for some reason they don’t live that long generally. They tend to grow as an under story tree in the mature piedmont forest.
I’ve grown fond of three Black Gums in Guilford County and two of the three have died. They tend to rot out, with the tops dying first, and one I know of got hit by lightning.
The biggest Black Gum I have ever seen was is in Green Hill Cemetery - the one in the picture above. It must be well over a hundred years old - Black Gums grow slowly and the Green Hill Gum is almost three feet in diameter.
According to the booklet “Treasure Trees of Guilford County 2005” the largest Black Gum in Guilford County is in McLeansville, and is 87 feet high, 39.5 inches in diameter, with a crown spread of 55 feet. That my friends is a big Black Gum.
By the way, the scientific name for Black Gum is Nyssa sylvatica. Nyssa is a Greek word meaning end or post or trunk. Nissa is a Scandinavian word for elf or fairy. I am not sure which is the true origin of this tree name – whether “post of the forest” or “elf of the forest.”
Black Gum may also be called Black Tupelo.
You can get more information the Black Gum, and see pictures, here, here, or here.
Copyright @2009 Joel Gillespie