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Blackgum (What Time is it in Nature)

October 24, 2015

This week’s What Time is it in Nature is brought to you by Kylie Piper.  Kylie is junior at NCSU, majoring in environmental science and she is currently interning with citizen science at Prairie Ridge.  Thanks Kylie!

Fall is a time of change, especially change in leaf colors. Prairie Ridge is a great place to come and see the fall transitions. One brilliant display of this currently is the Blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica).

Blackgum tree.  Photo by Chris Goforth.

Blackgum tree. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Blackgum is a medium to large tree that typically reaches heights of 60-80 feet. It is densely leafy and the canopy grows in a conical shape with clusters of leaves at the tips of the branches.  The leaves are leathery and positioned opposite one another along the stems.  During the spring and summer, the leaves are a shiny, deep green, but they turn vibrant shades of yellow, orange, red, and/or purple in the fall:

Blackgum leaf cluster.  Photo by Chris Goforth.

Blackgum leaf cluster. Photo by Chris Goforth.

The Blackgum ranges from the east coast states to parts of eastern Texas. It can survive in a variety of habitats from creek bottoms to altitudes of 3,000 ft and can survive mild flooding to drier soil conditions. Trees that live in wetter areas tend to grow much larger than trees in drier conditions and this enables them to have a wide range. The Blackgum is also well adapted to fire with its thick bark and high moisture content. This is important because some habitats, like prairies, depend on periodic burning and this adaptation increases the survivability of the Blackgum in more areas.

The Blackgum, sometimes also referred to as the Black Tupelo, depends on animal consumption of its fruits for seed dispersal. The tree grows purplish-blue fruits that are a great attractant for many birds and mammals:

Blackgum berries.  Photo by Chris Goforth.

Blackgum berries. Photo by Chris Goforth.

Animals who eat the fruits pass the seeds somewhere else, spreading the trees across their range naturally. Additional trees have been planted by humans because of the vibrant fall colors and its attractiveness to animals.

This tree is primarily used by humans as an ornamental tree in gardens or for shade but other uses include honey production and some wood products. The Blackgum aids honey production because in the wild, bees liked to use hollow places in the trunk to build their hives. The wood from the Blackgum is heavy, hard, and difficult to split after it’s been dried, so it has been used for products like mauls, pulleys, and agricultural rollers. In gardens it’s a great alternative to non-native species. It adds aesthetic value with its spectacular leaf color changes and adds biological value to a garden because it attracts a lot of wildlife. Planting native species is also advantageous because they require less maintenance since they’re already adapted to the climate and moisture conditions of the area. This saves money, water, and energy on your part and provides habitat for animals in your area.

The Blackgum tree could be a great addition to your garden or yard, so make a trip to Prairie Ridge soon to see its show of fall colors. We have a couple of Blackgums near the entrance kiosk to greet visitors. Fall is an exciting time of change in the environment and Prairie Ridge is a great place to enjoy all the beauty that nature has to offer!

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Museum’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge EcostationFind out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive.

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