Nyssa – Gardening in the Coastal Southeast

The Genus Nyssa
Family Cornaceae

This is a small genus of trees native to North America and Asia. Three species are native to the Coastal Southeast. These trees are the source of the nectar that honey bees turn into tupelo honey. None is common in nurseries but one species (N. sylvatica) occurs naturally in moist areas throughout the region.

In addition to the genus Nyssa, the family Cornaceae includes a few genera that are found in gardens, happy tree (Campotheca,) dogwood (Cornus) and dove tree (Davidia.)


Nyssa aquatica


Nyssa aquatica (Jacksonville Zoo)

water tupelo 

This is a large deciduous tree with a straight trunk that can grow to one hundred feet tall. Trunks of mature trees are swollen at the base, or buttressed. The leaves are up to eight inches long. The dark purple fruits are about one to one-and-a-half inches long. It grows well in swampy, wet areas in full sun or part shade. I find little information about this tree’s cold hardiness but it looks as though it grows naturally from zone 7a to 9a.

These trees are not easy to find, even in native plant nurseries. Plants are propagated by seeds.

I planted a few trees along a waterway in zone 9a. They have grown well and at a steady rate. This tree has specific cultural requirements but it is a beauty in the right, wet place.


Nyssa aquatica (Ebenezer Swamp, Georgia)


Nyssa aquatica leaves

Nyssa ogeechee


Nyssa ogeechee on the St. Mary’s River

Ogeechee lime

This is medium-sized deciduous tree that can grow to forty feet tall or more. It can have one or more trunks that are distinctively swollen at the base. The large leaves are up to six inches long. Small flowers are followed by one-and-a-half to two inch long fruits that turn bright red at maturity. The fruits are sour to the taste. They are used locally for flavoring drinks and jellies. The plant grows in sun to part shade in a wet soil. This tree survives flooding and has been suggested for heavy, clay soils. It is recommended for zones 7 to 9.

This plant is rare in local nurseries and catalogs. Check with native plant specialists. Plants are propagated by seeds.

This plant has a moderate growth rate, slower in a well-drained soil. It will take many years for a young tree to develop the stout trunk that is pictured here.

Nyssa sylvatica


Nyssa sylvatica

black gum

This is a medium-sized deciduous tree that can grow to sixty feet tall or more, typically with a single straight trunk that lacks the dramatic swelling of its base found in the other species. It ranges naturally across most of eastern North America. Flowers are inconspicuous. Half inch long, oval fruits are blue-black at maturity. Further north, this tree is well known for its bright red fall color. Typically, it grows in moist sites but it makes a deep taproot quickly from seed and is fairly drought tolerant once established. It is reported to be moderately salt tolerant. It is recommended for zones 3 to 9.

Plants are uncommon in native plant nurseries and catalogs. It may be propagated by seeds, air layering and cuttings, although cuttings are reported to be not easy.

This is a naturally occurring native in my upper zone 9a garden. It flowers in late April. The fruits ripen in September and October. Even if it were not an attractive tree, I would grow it for the birds that it attracts when the fruits are ripe. Notable are the bluebirds, pileated woodpeckers, and catbirds. Occasionally, I see migrating tanagers and veeries in these trees. Some of the individual trees have fruits that I find tart but palatable while others bear fruit that are bitter to my taste. In my garden, a few leaves start to turn red a few at a time starting in mid-August. They drop off little by little until the tree is bare in October. It is the first of my trees to lose its leaves in fall. New leaves start to appear relatively late, at the very last of March and early April.