Engaging Fall Color

Article written for patch.com

There is so much to look forward to this time of year. Cooler temperatures, fall harvest themes, fresh apple cider and fall color on deciduous ornamentals. The very simple answer as to why trees change color, in the fall, is because shorter days and longer, cooler nights help contribute to biochemical processes in the leaves. In the northeast there are dozens of reliable trees that offer an exciting and engaging show. However, many professionals in the horticultural field feel Black Tupelo, Nyssa sylvatica, is a reliable favorite.

Black Tupelo also goes by such common names as Black Gum, Pepperidge and Sour Gum. A native tree introduced before 1750, Black Tupelo offers consistent, blazing color in autumn. Lustrous dark green leaves in the summer morph into electric yellow, orange and purple-scarlet this time of year. A somewhat pyramidal tree in adolescence, Nyssa sylvatica evolves into a slightly irregular form with a rounded or flat-topped crown at maturity. Ultimate heights of this beauty are expected to reach 40-50 feet tall and about 20-30 feet wide. Personally I have been watching my favorite Nyssa grow in Far Hills, New Jersey for the past 10 years. Easily some 70 feet tall, this specimen sits on an estate we have been landscaping for the past decade. The bark on this particular tree is dark grey-brown with black running through it. Thick irregular ridges resemble that of an alligators hide. Situated in mostly shade, this one seems to be defying the odds as Pepperidge trees are usually best situated in full sun to part shade. Consider planting a Black Gum as a container grown plant, as they are notorious for having a taproot. Tolerant of so many soil conditions, dry, wet and even burned over forestlands, Nyssa’s only preference is to avoid high pH soils.

There are several great cultivars to be on the look out for. Nyssa sylvatica ‘Autumn Cascades’ is a great weeping form with larger leaves and spectacular fall color! ‘Red Wine’ or ‘Red, Red Wine’ is a harder one to find. A cultivar that has red coloring on its new growth is certainly worth searching for though. ‘Miss Scarlet’ was selected for its reliable, brilliant red fall color, lustrous dark green leaves and blue ornamental fruit. Truly a multi-season gem! ‘Sheri’s Cloud’ is an unexpected variegated form with cream and white coloring in the summer that bleed into pink and red hues in the fall. Found in Arkansas, ‘Sheri’s Cloud’ is also wet site tolerant! ‘Wildfire’ is another one with red-tipped new growth! The red new growth holds into the summer and is followed by an electric red show in the fall too. Introduced by Steve Hotevey in Oregon, this Nyssa is my second favorite of all time. The pièce de résistance, for me anyway, is ‘Zydeco Twist’. Certainly a more difficult one to secure for your garden, ‘Zydeco Twist’ has stunning contorted branches that remind me of Medusa’s head. Found by Sherwood Akin in Louisiana, this remarkable beauty is wet site tolerant, has vivid red fall color and has an amazing skeletal outline during the winter. Another multi-season interest tree!

There are so many wonderful trees in this world with amazing attributes. Nyssa sylvatica is hardy from zones 4 to 9. And while the dogwoods, pears, cherries and plums are pretty to look at in the early spring, consider a little diversity by extending your garden color in the fall with a Black Tupelo. Who knows, you may just get more compliments on this impressive native when people are over to visit your home this fall.