Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)
This attractive pyramidal tree, growing in Forrest Road, has the most intense bright scarlet leaves in autumn.
A row of these trees have beenplanted at Te Ko Utu park, and some also in the Meadow Walk; they will be a stunning sight in ten years or so, and especially when they reach their mature height of 25 metres. At this stage the bark will apparently resemble alligator hide.
The various different names of the tree are a clue to its characteristics. Nyssa is the word for a Greek water nymph, indicating its preference for a damp site, while sylvatica refers to its normal woodland habitat. The word tupelo, also meaning swamp tree, is a North American Cree word, and this tells us that its native habitat is the eastern USA, extending from Maine to Florida. It is sometimes referred to as ‘sour gum’, to distinguish it from the well-known ‘sweet gum’ or liquidamber with which it shares a broadly overlapping native range. And finally in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, it is called ‘beetlebung’, referring to the use of its wood as a mallet, known as a beetle, for hammering bungs into barrels.
The flowers of the tupelo are very small but a rich source of nectar for bees, while the small blue-black fruit are popular with small migratory birds in the USA such as the robin, the blue jay and the American thrush. It will be interesting to see when the Cambridge trees mature whether they too, are useful bird food. The wood is pale yellow in colour, and being heavy, hard, cross-grained and difficult to split, it has been put to good use in the past for mauls, pulleys, wheel hubs, agricultural rollers, bowls, weaving shuttles, paving blocks, railroad ties, and tough factory floors. Today of course it is mainly cultivated as an ornamental tree in the damper spots of sheltered gardens.