Content Detail

Tupelo or sour gum is a striking pyramidal tree in its youth with horizontal branches growing from a typically straight trunk. As the tree matures, it takes on more of an irregular habit. The dark green glossy summer foliage takes center stage in fall when the leaves turn bright scarlet. This species is native to the Chicago region according to Swink and Wilhelm’s Plants of the Chicago Region, with updates made according to current research.

  • Family (English) Sour Gum
  • Family (botanic) Nyssaceae
  • Planting site City parkway, Residential and parks, Wide median
  • Tree or plant type Tree
  • Foliage Deciduous (seasonally loses leaves)
  • Native locale Chicago area, Illinois, North America
  • Size range Medium tree (25-40 feet), Large tree (more than 40 feet)
  • Mature height 30-50 feet
  • Mature width 20-30 feet
  • Light exposure Full sun (6 hrs direct light daily), Partial sun / shade (4-6 hrs light daily)
  • Hardiness zones Zone 4, Zone 5 (Northern Illinois), Zone 6 (City of Chicago), Zone 7, Zone 8, Zone 9
  • Soil preference Acid soil, Moist, well-drained soil
  • Tolerances clay soil, Dry sites, Occasional drought, Road salt, Wet sites
  • Season of interest early fall, mid fall
  • Flower color and fragrance Inconspicuous, Other
  • Shape or form Oval, Pyramidal, Round
  • Growth rate Slow
  • Transplants well Yes
  • Planting considerations May be difficult to find in nurseries
  • Wildlife Cavity-nesting birds, Game birds, Mammals, Songbirds
  • Has cultivars Yes

Native geographic location and habitat: 

Tupelo is native to eastern North America from New England and southern Ontario south to central Florida and eastern Texas, as well as in Mexico. Found naturally growing on or above stream and ravine banks. C-Value: 8.  

Bark color and texture: 

Distinct horizontal branching structure with mature bark that has thick blocky ridges, similar to alligator skin.

Leaf or needle arrangement, size, shape, and texture: 

The leaves are alternate, dense and leathery. They are up to 5 inches long, dark green, and elliptical in shape with smooth margins. Fall color is consistently scarlet.

Flower arrangement, shape, and size: 

Dioecious (separate male and female trees), but sometimes each tree has some perfect flowers. Female trees need a male tree for pollination. Small, greenish-white flowers appear on long stalks the same time leaves are emerging. Female flowers are borne in sparse clusters and male flowers in dense heads.

Fruit, cone, nut, and seed descriptions: 

The fruits are small, 1/2 inch, dark purple, oval drupes. They are found on female trees only. Fruit ripens ripens in late September as leaves are changing color.

Plant care:

Tupelo prefers moist, well-drained, acidic soils high in organic matter. Best in full sun. This tree has a taproot, making it difficult to transplant and should be spring planted only.  Prune in late fall or during dormant season.

List of pests, diseases, and tolerances: 

Can develop chlorosis (yellowing leaves) in high pH soils. Cankers and leaf spots are potential problems. Tolerant of black walnut toxicity.

Afterburner® tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica ‘David Odum’):

This cultivar grows 35 feet high and 20 feet wide, with a very symmetrical, upright to oval shape and excellent red fall color.

Wildfire tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica ‘Wildfire’):

New foliage emerges bright red, then matures to a dark, glossy green. Fall color is yellow-orange to purple-red.


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