Tupelo, Nyssa sylvatica, is an American native. The species is clearly native to Edison, to judge from the numbers of them there.
The tree's best season is now, when its glossy green leaves turn crimson before falling. Tupelo is capable of growing to over 100 feet in height but is typically seen as a much smaller tree. Tupelos favor moist ground. The name tupelo comes from the native American Creek language, meaning swamp tree. Its Latin name means water nymph of the woods. The tree is also known as black gum, sour gum, and pepperidge. Pepperidge farm cookies and breads are named for an ancient tupelo growing on the Fairfield Connecticut farm where they were first baked.
The wood of the tupelo has interbraided and cross-woven fibers that make it basically impossible to split(1). Useless for most purposes, the wood is good for the handles of tools that get heavy use. The island of Martha's Vineyard has its own local name for the tree that derives from the wood's use in tools and the island's maritime trade history. Islanders call it "beetlebung tree". Why beetlebung? The wood was so resistant to abuse that it could be used not only for the bungs that plugged barrels, but also for the beetles (mallets) that were used to pound the bungs into place.(2)
Tupelo's foliage is beautiful spring, summer, and fall. The small, oval leaves are glossy and thick; they look as though they should be evergreen. The berries have a very high fat content, making them attractive to a large variety of birds.(3) Why don't we have tupelos in Plainfield? Their only disadvantage is a tap root that makes them a bit difficult to transplant. A minor flaw, I think.
Golden rain tree, Koelreuteria paniculata, is a small Oriental tree that makes a spectacular show of yellow flowers in summer.
Its flowers are followed by papery lantern-like seed capsules, which have an appeal of their own.
Goldenrain trees are the perfect size to fit under overhead utility wires. We should have some of these beautiful little trees in Plainfield.
(1) Donald Culross Peattie, A Natural History of North American Trees, Houghton Mifflin 2007, p. 383.
(2) "Beetle" is related etymologically to "beat" and "abut".
(3) Charles Fergus, Trees of Pennsylvania and the Northeast, Stackpole Books 2002, p.220.
Copyright Gregory Palermo