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How ‘Bout a Tupelo, Honey?


By Paul James

If I were to plant a tree tomorrow, it would be a Tupelo. No question about it. It’s a beautiful, stately tree with a straight trunk, one that I’ve recommended to dozens of folks, all of whom have subsequently thanked me for turning them on to it. But sadly, it’s underused in area landscapes. And that’s too bad.

My guess is that has something to do with the fact that it’s also known as Black Gum, an awful name in my opinion, and one that likely makes people think of Sweet Gum, an entirely different and somewhat messy tree whose seed capsules annoy my wife to no end (and sadly for her, we have two of them on our property).

Tupelos — which by the way are native trees — grow to around 30’ in 15 years or so, and can ultimately reach 50’ or more, while maintaining a width of 20′ to 30′. They grow in darn near any and every soil type, including clay and even standing water, but will tolerate dry soils as well. They produce inconspicuous greenish-white flowers in May to June that are prized by bees, and the dark blue berries that follow are gobbled up by birds. (Although trees are either mostly male or mostly female, nearly all have a few of both flowers for berry production.) Tupelos are also tough as nails, and are rarely bothered by pests or diseases.

But the real payoff comes in the fall, when the glossy green leaves of Tupelos change into a kaleidoscope of colors, from brilliant scarlet red to reddish purple and even yellow-orange. Prepare to be surprised — and delighted.

A relatively new introduction — ‘Tupelo Tower’ — has all the attributes of other Tupelos but only grows 12’ to 15′ wide, making it ideal for narrow spaces. Even the bark of Tupelos is cool, which develops deep furrows as it ages and takes on a look that resembles alligator skin.

So is there a downside to Tupelos? Sort of. Because of their deep taproot, they don’t transplant well, so give careful consideration to where you plant them. The upside, however, is that you can plant them within six to ten feet of sidewalks and driveways without worrying about the concrete cracking as the trees mature.

Sure, there are plenty of great trees to plant, but if you’re having trouble deciding which one is right for your place, you can’t go wrong with a Tupelo, honey.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

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2 responses to “How ‘Bout a Tupelo, Honey?”

  1. I went to tree class at Southwoods in fall of 2018 and Paul had Tupelo on his “choice” list back then. I have 2 of them including one Wildfire variety. Glad I listened, they are awesome

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