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Garden Q&A: What is this flashy fall tree? And this shrub that’s keeping its leaves?

Alternately known as a blackgum, sourgum or tupelo, this tree's foliage flashes a brilliant red in the fall.
Alternately known as a blackgum, sourgum or tupelo, this tree's foliage flashes a brilliant red in the fall. (Ellen Nibali/For The Baltimore Sun)

I’ve been admiring this tree’s great fall color — it got super red after I shot this photo — and want to get one. It has a hard-to-identify typical leaf that’s shiny. No flower or fruit for a clue. Do you know what it is?

Variously called blackgum, sourgum, tupelo and pepperidge, this native tree is either male or female, which may explain why you had trouble identifying it.

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Flowers occur on both male and female trees, with their flowers configured differently, but — just to keep it interesting — each tree also has occasional perfect flowers, i.e. having both sexes in one flower. Flowers are not flashy though, greenish-white and small, yet providing important nectar for bees.

Tupelo honey is famous. The 1/2″ long fruits are dark blue to black, also easy to miss but relished by wildlife.

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Nyssa sylvatica is a well-behaved native tree growing 30-75 feet high, saving its landscape punch for autumn, when its scarlet leaves are outstanding. It prefers moderate to moist soil, yet tolerates standing water and drought, in sun to part shade. Plant both sexes for the best fruit production.

We’re concerned that a shrub doesn’t belong here, since it’s still so green at the end of November, and we’ve noticed several others like it down in the woodland. It has oval, opposite leaves.

We suspect Asian honeysuckle shrub, a non-native invasive plant appearing in our area. They are known for retaining their leaves late into the season and re-growing leaves earlier than many natives in the spring. This is a common tactical advantage of invasive plants.

Its flowers look like those of honeysuckle vines. Berries are bright red and thin-skinned, appearing in summer. Along with barberry bushes, research shows that when Asian honeysuckle shrubs invade an understory, more deer ticks result — and a higher percentage are infected with Lyme disease.

Remove honeysuckle shrubs before they take over your woodland and before their berries have a chance to spread far beyond your woodland. Search “exotic bush honeysuckle” on the Home and Garden Information Center website. It will recommend native alternatives, too.

University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Maryland’s Gardening Experts” to send questions and photos.

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