The black gum tree (Nyssa sylvatica) is a hardwood in the tupelo family which may grow up to 75-80 feet tall. Amazingly, these trees live beyond 400 years! The general distribution of black gums is from southwestern Maine, west to southern Ontario, New York, Michigan, Illinois and Missouri, and south to Florida.

Black gum trees, like the Atlantic white cedar, prefer the acid content of swamps. Other constituents of swamps where black gum trees are located often include red maple, yellow birch. and white pine, as well as a variety of shrubs and ferns. While the branches of the black gum tree grow generally perpendicular to the trunk , they lack symmetry in their arrangement. The tree bark ranges from reddish brown to steel gray . As the tree ages, the bark develops deep irregular ridges and diamond shaped plates that resemble the scales of an alligator.

In the fall, the leaves of the black gum are among the first to change color. They assume a glossy, brilliant red color. Because the leaves are thin enough to let light shine through, the tree appears to glow red.

In black gum swamps, as in Atlantic white cedar swamps, a shrub layer, a herbivorous layer and a sphagnum moss "carpet" are found, and trees grow on "hummocks" comprised of compressed organic matter, or peat. Generally two or three trees grow together on a hummock.



There are three "basin swamps" in the Hackett Hill swamp complex which support populations of black gum as a major or minor species in the swamp make-up. These black gum trees may be among the oldest trees in New Hampshire, since some of them have been aged at 450 years. In some of the swamps, near or in between hummocks, it is not uncommon to see pitcher plants, as well as sheep and bog laurel.

Credits: The photograph of the black gum leaves is from the Michigan State University Extension.