Biography of A Durham Finest Tree No. 2: Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)

by Wendy Diaz

Now that the nomination period for Durham’s Finest Trees1  (DFT) competition is closed we are in the process of visiting these grand old occupants of our county and have received a number of very good candidates. One of these, a large Black Tupelo, commonly known also as Black Gum or just Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), is located in the backyard of a home along Broad Street in the Old West Durham neighborhood. Most of the leaves have fallen from the trees by now but in November this Tupelo displayed a splendor unrivaled in this neighborhood near West Club Boulevard, predominately populated by other large hardwoods such as Willow Oaks. Unfortunately, the DFT committee visited the tree in late November and after its prime fall display.

‘Photo by Wendy Diaz, November 18, 2015

‘Photo by Wendy Diaz, November 18, 2015

photo courtesy of Elaine McNeill

photo courtesy of Elaine McNeill

The Old West Durham neighborhood was developed as a result of the Erwin Cotton Mills manufacturing activity that began in 1892 and closed in 1986 (http://www.opendurham.org/category/neighborhood/old-west-durham; http://oldwestdurham.org/history/8-mills-of-erwin-mills.html). The area just to the north was undeveloped until 1908 when construction began on the new Watts Hospital (now North Carolina School of Science and Math) located about 1 block north of the tree. This site was chosen for the new larger hospital because the petri dishes placed around Durham by the architect grew the fewest bugs at this approximately 50 acre tract at the northwest edge of town and outside of the city limits. The site was a “splendid grove of oak and hickory” at the time of construction based on research by Open Durham http://www.opendurham.org/buildings/watts-hospital-1909-1980-north-carolina-school-science-and-math. The original house on the site was probably built in the 1910’s but it burnt down and the current house (under renovation) was built in the 1930’s.

The Black Tupelo tree is highly valued by the current owners who decided against a house expansion because it would harm the tree. The trunk circumference is 113 inches and it is approximately 80 feet high. The nominee told us that the tree is scarlet red in the fall and one can see it in the distance as one approaches the house. Its other striking feature is the crown spread of about 90 feet, which shades the entire back yard. In fact, the crown spread of our Black Tupelo is several feet more than that of the current North Carolina Champion Tree of the same species located in Hoke County (height 95 feet, circumference 159 inches and 57 feet crown spread).

Photo by Wendy Diaz November 18, 2015

Photo by Wendy Diaz November 18, 2015

The species is native to Eastern North America and it is dioecious. Our specimen did not have any fruit so it is probably a male. Female trees need a male pollinator tree to set their dark-blue fruit. The species have long taproots, tolerate poorly drained soils and can be used in rain gardens. The Black Tupelo typically grows from 30 to 50 feet tall but can reach 90 feet in height. http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?kempercode=a670. Black Tupelos can live to be very old and capable of living over 600 years http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/~adk/oldlisteast/#spp, however, this large specimen is roughly 85 years old dating to the construction of the current house.

Photo by Wendy Diaz November 18, 2015

Photo by Wendy Diaz November 18, 2015

  1. Durham’s Finest Trees program recognizes significant trees in Durham County, promotes discovery and ability to identify trees, and helps preserve the best examples of specific tree species, particularly native and those trees well adapted to Durham County.  The program also promotes awareness of trees in our community and hopes to catalog fine examples of magnificent specimens of trees due to their size, setting, historical importance, or significant feature. Winners will be announced on Arbor Day, Spring 2016.

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