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The swamp tupelo, Nyssa biflora, is a tree in the small North American genus Nyssa, which is currently included in the dogwood family (Cornaceae). It is also known by the common name swamp blackgum, or blackgum. All species in genus Nyssa tolerate flooded soils, and some, such as the swamp tupelo, require sites inundated with water in order to thrive. The genus name Nyssa, which refers to a Greek water nymph, reflects this, as does the common name tupelo, which derives from a Native American word for swamp (opilwa).
Swamp tupelo grows in estuaries and swamps especially in the warm, humid southeastern United States. These trees are found along the Atlantic coastal plain from Delaware, eastern Maryland, and southeastern Virginia, south to southern Florida; and along the gulf coast to eastern Texas. They prefer to be consistently submerged in shallow, slowly moving fresh water. When living in stagnant ponds, areas that cyclically dry out, or deep floodwaters, the growth of this species is significantly stunted.
Swamp tupelos grow in wet pine flatwoods and wet pine savannas, alongside species such as red maple (Acer rubrum), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), buckwheat-tree (Cliftonia monophylla), dogwood (Cornus spp.), swamp cyrilla (Cyrilla racemiflora), swamp-privet (Forestiera acuminata), Carolina ash (Fraxinus caroliniana), loblolly-bay (Gordonia lasianthus), dahoon (Ilex cassine), inkberry (I. glabra), yaupon (I. vomitoria), fetterbush lyonia (Lyonia lucida), and bayberry (Myrica spp.), pine, cedar and cypress. While generally shaded, understory trees, they grow very well when their over story canopy is disrupted.
A large tree, the swamp tupelo can grow to over 100 feet (30 meters) in height and 3 to 4 feet (1-1.3 meters) in diameter. Its bark is light brown with deep furrows, and it has simple dark gree, alternating leaves. Swamp tupelo trunks spread out at the base forming buttress-like structures. Its deep tap roots help support the tree, as well as aid in capture of nutrients and allow respiration in anaerobic flooded environments. After disturbance or logging, the stump usually produces vigorous sprouts. These sprouts can produce seeds after two years.
In the spring, the trees produce a multitude of tiny green-white flowers. The flowers are dioecious, meaning they are either male or female, and the two kinds of flower are produced on separate trees. Bees are the main pollinator, although other insects and wind also cross-pollinate the flowers. Swamp tupelos produce large numbers of drupe fruits each fall season between September and October. The drupe fruits bear a single seed, and become purple when ripe in November. Birds and small animals readily eat the nutritious fruit and disperse the seeds. Seeds overwinter in cool damp soil and germinate the following spring.
Swamp tupelo plays important roles in sustaining other wildlife. In addition to providing nutritional fruit, the trees have complex, grooved trunks make cavities that provide dependable denning and nesting sites for small animals and birds. Deer eat the highly palatable foliage, twigs and sprouts. Bees nest in cavities, and seek out tupelo flower nectar. Bee-keepers and commercial honey producers tout the delicious and non-crystallizing honey their bees produce from tupelo nectar, and tupelo honey is a million-dollar industry in parts of Florida. The tupelo leafminer (Antispila nysaefoliella) and the forest tent caterpillar (Malacosoma disstria) attack and can cause significant damage to swamp tupelo trees.
Swamp tupelo wood is strong, and used for many purposes including lumber, paper pulp, railroad ties, flooring, and handles for various tools. Swamp tupelo is planted as an ornamental plant for its attractive shape and fall color.
Closely related to black tupelo, swamp tupelo differs in having shorter leaves and a shrubbier profile. Its smaller distribution is confined within that of black tupelo. Some consider swamp tupelo to be a variety of black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica biflora) rather than a distinct species.
(Balestri 2015; Burns and Barbara 1990; Seiler et al. 2015; University of Florida 2013; Wikipedia 2014; Wikipedia 2016)