Named a “tupelo” from the Indigenous Muscogee language’s words “ito,” meaning “tree,” and “opilwa,” meaning “swamp,” this deciduous native of eastern North America is typically found within moist forests. Its particularly cross-grained wood is robust, making it ideal for heavyweight tools and chopping bowls. In fact, on Martha’s Vineyard, it is often called the “beetlebung tree” which may refer to its use in producing mallets called beetles, which are used for hammering corks (bungs) into barrels.
Black tupelo is the longest-lived non-clonal flowering plant found in eastern North America, able to live past 650 years as a singular organism. It typically grows a straight trunk between 60 – 100 feet tall, from which slender branches extend horizontally. Though tolerant of many soil conditions, this slow-growing wetland species prefers full sun to partial shade in moist, acidic soils. When young, its leaves and buds are browsed by white-tailed deer, often to the point where large populations may prevent seed germination. Its bitter, dark blue berries mature in August and are consumed throughout the fall by black bears, raccoons, thrushes, wild turkeys, and many other mammal and bird species.