Green Neighbors: Sweetness and Light, Evoking the Blues

By Ron Sullivan
Thursday November 12, 2009 - 09:58:00 AM

Those of us who came of age at a certain time think of Van Morrison and John Lee Hooker when we hear the tree’s name: tupelo. It’s an Algonquian word, like the name of the Susquehannock (“muddy river”) people, who lived along the river I grew up on, the Susquehanna. (Donald Culross Peattie said it was derived from the Creek eto, “tree”, and opelwv, “swamp.”) 

It’s riverine, too; some of our American tupelo species are so wedded to water they have to live with their feet wet in swamps and streams. Tupelo honey, so famously sweet, comes from the Apalachicola River in northern Florida, where beekeepers float their hives on rafts when the trees are in bloom in order to direct the bees’ attention exclusively to the tupelos’ flowers. Hollow tupelo trunks traditionally made good beehives, or “bee-gums.” 

There was a time, some 10 million years ago, when tupelos grew wild in a swampy East Bay (not that there was a San Francisco Bay as such back then.) Fossil tupelo fruit has been found in the Miocene Era Neroly Formation, along with the remains of swamp cypress, red bay and magnolia.  

At the time, proto-California had a summer-wet climate like that of the modern Southeast. Alligators would have felt right at home, although there’s no fossil evidence for their presence.  

Like some other southern trees that aren’t fussy about good drainage, tupelos do well as street trees in the Berkeley flatland’s water-retaining soil. The city’s been planting Nyssa sylvatica, black tupelo, along streets lately and I hope they work out. Right now, as the gray rains come in and daylight wanes, I do love the illumination we get from these—and from their Southland compatriots the liquidambars—planted along our streets. 

Sweetgums and sourgums, they’re called, and the funny thing is that it’s the sourgums that produce sweetness. The gum tree of the old fiddle tune “Possum up the Gum Tree” was a tupelo, although the gum part is somewhat mysterious. “Pepperidge” is another obscure folk name for the tree.  

Peattie says the black tupelo was considered useless as a timber tree; the wood is prone to rot if it’s in contact with the soil, and it’s notoriously hard to split. What the wood was prized for, apart from the bee-gums, was the handles of mauls and other heavy-duty tools, as well as gunstocks and pistol grips. 

Take a stroll down Dwight Way or the part of Allston Way by the city corporation yard west of Sacramento. You might even see the nametags from the nursery still on the youngsters that are wearing training stakes.  

They might tickle you with their leaves as you pass. Have patience, give them time; soon enough they’ll be safely overhead, pruned for pedestrian ease, brightening the way better than those weird orangey streetlamps ever could.