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 spring pollinators. A solitary seed resides within the fleshy fruit, much the way a peach has a seed inside its flesh.

Honey producers that have tupelo trees near their hives get a unique honey. Honey that sits for awhile will eventually begin to drop sugar out of suspension. This granulated sugar settles to the bottom of a jar. Honey made from tupelo nectar will not granulate and will keep almost indefinitely.

Beekeepers can gain another benefit from tupelo. Tupelo trunks often become hollow inside and make a great home for bee colonies. Beekeepers in the southern United States historically used tupelo trunks for hives, hence another popular name, "bee gum." To make a tupelo hive, a beekeeper placed a hollow trunk section on a crate with a board on top. Bees could enter and exit from the bottom or through a small hole in the side.

Tupelo has other commercial uses in the southern United States. Paper mills use it to make newsprint and cardboard. The wood of the swollen trunk is lighter and less dense than the rest of the tree and can be used to make fishing floats and bobbers. Mason jar and berry crates can be made from tupelo due to the grain's odd, interlocking fibers. The wood is difficult to split but is fairly strong, even when thinly cut.

Although its cream-colored wood is attractive, it cannot compete with the beauty of oaks, walnut, and maples for finished products. Therefore, tupelo is used for building covered furniture, railroad ties, molding, trim, factory floors, thread spools and novelty items. Some carpenters of the early 1900s considered tupelo to be excellent timber for framing houses. A keen nose can detect the swampy smell of the cut wood. Historically, tupelo made great tool handles and cutting boards for the kitchen. Unfortunately, Missouri's tupelo supply is low due to limited range and small remaining habitat.

When considering ornamental plants in and around ponds, don't overlook the tupelo. The tree is attractive and tends not to be "weedy." The golden fall foliage accents any wet area. Seeds may be collected in fall and planted in pots to get them started. Also, tupelos don't form knees that might cause mowing difficulties.

Wildlife make use of water tupelo. The fleshy fruit and seeds are slightly bitter for people but are readily eaten by wood ducks, squirrels, deer, and turkey. Hollow trees provide homes for woodpeckers, prothonotary warblers, flying squirrels and raccoons. The boughs provide nesting habitat for insects, birds and small mammals.

A water tupelo usually grows 50 to 60 feet tall. The state champion tupelo is 78 feet tall and has a bough spread of 48 feet and a circumference of 19 feet, 9 inches. The tree is growing at Allred Lake Conservation Area, east of Neelyville in Butler County. Seeing it is worth the visit.

Water tupelo are easy to find at Duck Creek, Ben Cash, Warbler Woods, Otter Slough, Coon Island and Big Cane conservation areas, and at Mingo National Wildlife Refuge and in some sinkhole ponds in the Ozarks, such as Cupola Pond and Tupelo Gum Pond Natural Area. The clogged-up sinkholes hold water, mimicking swamp conditions.

Although not as famous as the bald cypress, the water tupelo deserves respect as an important part of Missouri's history and natural heritage. It is a tree well worth knowing.

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