The Other Swamp Tree

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Published on: Nov. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 9, 2010

Tupelo trees have the same problem as Rodney Dangerfield-they don't get no respect. Hardly anyone recognizes them, and most people would never guess that the tupelo is a fascinating tree valuable to people and wildlife.

Recognition has always been a problem for this swamp tree. In the early 1800s, when surveyors marked off township, range and section lines in the lowlands of Missouri's Bootheel, they did not recognize water tupelo (Nyssa aquatica) as a distinct species. Instead, they often mistook it for black gum, its close relative. Two hundred years later, few Missourians know the tree exists or that it is native to southern Missouri.

Water tupelo is aptly named. Its scientific name means, literally, "water nymph." The word "tupelo" is a combination of two Creek tribe words that refer to tree (eto) and water (opelwu). Swamp gum, tupelo gum and swamp tupelo are its other common names confirming that the tree is usually linked to water.

In fact, the tupelo is one of only a few trees capable of coping with prolonged flood conditions. Most trees need oxygen during their growing season or they die of suffocation. Water contains less oxygen than air. A tree living with its roots in water must be adapted to lower oxygen levels.

Only the bald cypress can rival the tupelo's ability to withstand long periods of flooding. Cypress and tupelo are very similar in habit and abundance, but water tupelos are less known. Both cypress and tupelo seeds need a dry period to germinate before they can endure flooding.

Water tupelo has full, graceful foliage. The leaf shape is oval, with a few randomly placed teeth. Tupelos have roughly furrowed bark that encourages the growth of mosses, lichens, and marsh St. John's-wort. These add splashes of lime and dark green to a swamp.

Tupelo, cypress and pumpkin ash living in wet conditions tend to have swollen trunks. Swelling may just be a reaction to permanent flooding, but it could also be an adaptation to keep the tree standing in soggy soil. A swollen base is wider and offers increased stability. You seldom see a tupelo tree toppled by wind. Branches may break off, but the whole tree remains upright.

Tupelo trees are distinctly male or female. Male trees have small, pollen producing flowers, and female trees have slightly larger green flowers that eventually develop into emerald, oblong fruits that mature to a deep purple. The fragrant flowers entice many visits from

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