Find out how to identify and use the fruit of black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), an attractive, long-lived tree native to the eastern United States.
Table of contents:
Warning: Rule #1 in our Beginner’s guide to foraging is never eat anything you’re not 100% certain you’ve correctly ID’d AND you’re not 100% certain is edible. This applies to black tupelo fruit and all other wild foods you’re not presently familiar with.
I. Black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) introduction
You may be familiar with tupelo honey, made by honeybees foraging Ogeechee tupelo (Nyssa ogeche) along the swamps and rivers of Florida and Georgia. Well, we’d like to introduce you to another relatively unheralded and more widely dispersed tupelo species that you’ve likely encountered if you live east of the Mississippi River: black tupelos (Nyssa sylvatica). And unlike Ogeechee tupelos, black tupelos can and do grow far away from bodies of water.
In our area (Upstate South Carolina) native bees and honeybees alike enjoy the spring flowers of black tupelos. A significant portion of the commercial honey produced here comes from tulip poplar and black tupelo flowers.
However, black tupelo fruit (which are drupes that resemble berries) are not something most foragers or chefs know about or use.
Is black tupelo fruit edible or poisonous?
No, black tupelo fruit is not poisonous to humans. It’s edible and has lots of culinary applications.
Fall-ripening black tupelo fruit is also eaten by countless species of wild birds and mammals. If your dog or cat happened to eat some of the fruit, they are purportedly not poisonous to pets — at least in moderation. Monitor your pet and call your vet or animal poison control if they show signs of poisoning.
Over the past few years, The Tyrant and I have adopted a black tupelo foraging habit: every time we spot a tree fruiting in the fall, we taste a sample. As with any wild, fruiting tree with diverse genetics (pawpaws, American persimmons, etc), the taste of black tupelo berries is distinctive but quite diverse from tree to tree.
What does black tupelo fruit taste like?
Black tupelo fruit universally has an intense sour-bitter plum flavor. However, berries on some trees are quite palatable and sweet while on others the bitter or sour flavor is dialed up to 10.
Don’t let those intense flavors fool you though… Black tupelo fruit can be made into delicious sauces, ferments, and other recipes — and cooking really mellows and balances the flavor. Add a bit of sweetener (honey, sugar, maple syrup, etc) to cooked and strained black tupelo juice, and you’ll instantly realize its potential in the kitchen.
In this format, it will outperform any plum you put up against it.
Other names for the black tupelo tree:
Thanks to Linnaeus, we can all say Nyssa sylvatica and agree upon the tree species referenced.
But if you’ve read this far and are scratching your head wondering if the common name black tupelo is the same tree species that your cousin has in their yard but calls by a different name, the answer is probably yes. That’s because black tupelo has quite a few other common names, with popularity varying by region.
Other names for black tupelo include:
- black gum
- bowl gum
- gum tree
- sour gum
- tupelo gum
- wild pear tree
- yellow gum
What does “tupelo” mean?
Tupelo likely comes from the Native American Creek nation words “ito” (which means “tree”) and “opilwa” (which means “swamp”). Through the ears and mouths of European immigrants, those two Creek words eventually transmuted and evolved into the name tupelo.
In addition to the Ogeechee tupelo (Nyssa ogeche) of honey-making lore and black tupelo (N. sylvatica), there are at least a handful of other tupelo species in the United States, with ongoing (eternal?) debate amongst botanists about localized subspecies and variants.
II. How to identify black tupelo
Want to eat some black tupelo fruit? First make sure you’ve properly identified the tree and the fruit.
6 keys to identifying black tupelo:
1. Geographical range
Black tupelos are most common east of the Mississippi River in Hardiness Zones 4–9. Here’s their native range:Unlike certain other species of tupelos, black tupelo (and subvariants) can tolerate a wide range of soil conditions and can even grow far away from rivers, swamps, and floodplains.
2. Tree size
Black tupelos can grow to become huge, old trees. They typically mature to a height between 60-80′ but some have topped 100′. A black tupelo tree in New Hampshire was determined to be 679 years old!
3. Branch angles
Branches on black tupelo come off the trunks at 90 degree angles rather than upward angles.
Black tupelo bark matures to a gray color with the texture of alligator hide.
Black tupelos feature simple, alternate, ovate 2-5″ leaves that come to a point with a smooth glossy sheen on the top surface. They usually feature smooth leaf edges, but they’re sometimes toothed.
In cooler climates, the fall leaves are striking, ranging from yellow, orange, to red-purple in the fall. This feature has earned them popularity as an ornamental landscape plant common in public parks.
Black tupelo trees in our area can take on gorgeous fall colors in some years, bet less so in others depending on seasonal weather conditions.
Related note: Deer love to eat black tupelo leaves, so if you intend to plant tupelo saplings on your property, be sure to provide protection for them. In addition to putting up a physical barrier(s), application of Bobbex to young tupelo foliage will help keep deer away long enough to allow the saplings to eventually reach a height that deer are no longer a threat. See: How to keep deer out of your garden or yard.
6. Flowers and fruit (and seasons)
Black tupelos produce clusters of small, white-green flowers in spring that buzz with pollinator activity. Immature fruits (botanically drupes) are green before ripening to a deep black-purple color in the fall.
Male black tupelos trees don’t produce berries; only female or *polygamodioecious trees do. (*Definition: Having either male or female flowers plus bisexual/perfect flowers on the same tree.)
When ripe, there will be loads of small fruits on the ground under fruit-bearing black tupelo trees, some of which is in good enough shape to use. If you get lucky, you’ll find a tree whose lower branches are at harvesting height.
Black tupelo fruit lookalike:
Black tupelo fruit looks identical to certain other tupelo fruits, which are also edible and ripen at the same time, such as swamp tupelo (Nyssa biflora).
A local connection on Instagram recently told us that their black tupelo tree produced ripe fruit in June and July. This made us immediately aware that native wild black cherries (Prunus serotina) could be confused for black tupelo since their individual fruits look similar, albeit with ripening times that are months apart.
Wild black cherries are also edible. Use our fermented wild black cherry cordial recipe in summer when those fruits are ripe. You can also use the exact same recipe to make a delicious black tupelo cordial!
We’re not aware of any poisonous black tupelo lookalikes in our region that ripen in the fall. Regardless, be sure to use our black tupelo ID guide above before consuming the fruit. Even then, only eat a small amount your first time to make sure you don’t have any averse/allergic reactions — for every food on earth, there is a person who is allergic to it.
Recipe: Black tupelo whipped honey butter
As mentioned in the introduction, you shouldn’t think of black tupelos as a fruit you’ll eat raw by the handful. They’re best cooked or fermented in order to extract the juice/flavor and gorgeous deep purple color resulting from high concentrations of anthocyanins.
Since The Tyrant is currently turning out a lot of whole wheat sourdough loaves in our kitchen, I wanted to make an attractive, flavorful spread to compliment her lovely loaves, hence the creation of our black tupelo whipped honey butter recipe.
Here are recipe tips and process photos to help you make this recipe:
Materials you’ll need:
- small saucepan
- flexible spatula
- strainer or cheesecloth
- electric mixer
Ingredients you’ll need:
- 3/4 cups or 1 1/2 sticks unsalted organic grass-fed butter, softened to room temperature (or use salted butter and just don’t add any additional salt)
- *1/4 cup concentrated tupelo juice at room temperature (*To make 1/4 cup concentrate, you’ll need to start with about 1 1/2 cups or 8 ounces of black tupelo fruit measured whole with stems removed.)
- 4 tbsp or 1/4 cup quality local honey (or earn extra points by using tupelo honey!)
- 2 tbsp water
- pinch of salt, or to taste
Step 1: Cook and strain tupelo fruit.
Put tupelo fruit into small saucepan then smash it with muddler or similar kitchen tool. Add a couple tablespoons of water to buy more cooking time and flavor extraction.
Put saucepan over medium heat and cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Strain out fruit skins and pits. Let concentrated juice cool to room temperature.
*If you’re not using salted butter in this recipe, you could add salt to the warm juice so it melts — or add it later to taste when you’re whipping final ingredients but you might get some grittiness depending on grain size.
Step 2: Whip room temperature butter.
Whip room temperature butter on high speed for about 3-4 minutes with an electric mixer. Your aim is to beat air into it to get a lighter, fluffier, texture. Use a spatula to make sure butter isn’t sticking to bottom and sides of mixing bowl and not getting whipped.
Step 3: Add black tupelo juice – watch the splatter!
Slowly add your black tupelo juice to the whipped butter, incorporate, and whip it in for another 3 minutes or so. This is juice going on to fat, so it won’t immediately incorporate. Translation: there will be some splatter for about 20-30 seconds until your mixer incorporates the juice into the butter.
Slowly add your black tupelo juice to the whipped butter, incorporate, and whip it in for another 3 minutes or so. This is juice going on to fat, so it won’t immediately incorporate. Translation: there will be some juice splatter for about 20-30 seconds until your mixer incorporates the juice into the butter.
Step 4: Add honey (optional salt) to taste
How sweet or salty do you want to go? You be the judge.
We added 4 tbsp (1/2 cup) honey plus a generous pinch of salt to meet our flavor preferences. You could go higher or lower as you see fit. Add honey slowly while mixer is on high.
Step 5: Use your tupelo whipped honey butter
This recipe makes a topping, not something you’re supposed to eat straight by the spoonful. For instance, it’s great put on toast — or French toast.
You might also realize that this recipe is a launching pad for other confections like icing. We’re not telling you where to end up, we’re just trying to get you started on your black tupelo culinary adventure!
Storage note: This recipe is meant to be served and used immediately at room temperature for a soft-textured topping. However, it also stores well covered in the fridge even though it firms up.
Refrigerated, it should store for weeks, but hopefully you’ll use it before then!
Black tupelo whipped honey butter
A beautiful, honey-sweetened whipped butter topping made from the fruit of black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica).
- 3/4 cup or 1 1/2 sticks unsalted organic grass-fed butter, softened to room temperature (Or use salted butter and just don’t add any additional salt)
- 1/4 cup concentrated tupelo juice cooled to room temperature (Made from about 1 1/2 cups or 8 ounces of black tupelo fruit measured whole with stems removed.)
- 4 tbsp or 1/4 cup quality local honey
- 2 tbsp water
- pinch of salt, or to taste (If using unsalted butter)
Put de-stemmed tupelo fruit into small saucepan. Use a muddler or similar kitchen tool to smash the berries. Add a couple tablespoons of water to add additional liquid in order to allow for a longer cook time without reducing liquid too much or too fast.
Cook over medium heat for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Strain out fruit skins and pits, then let juice cool to room temperature.
Once juice has cooled, whip butter on high in electric mixer for three minutes. Slowly add tupelo juice and whip for another 3 minutes. Add honey and salt to taste and whip for another 2-3 minutes.
Serve immediately at room temperature as a soft spread or store covered in fridge for up to 2-3 weeks. When serving fridge-stored spread, ideally allow it to sit out and come to room temp to soften before using.
Other tasty trees you’ll want to invite to a meal:
- How to eat your Christmas tree (and other edible conifers)
- Wild black cherry cordial
- How to make acorn flour, cold- or hot-leached
- Why and how to grow chestnuts
- Hickory nut ambrosia
- American vs Japanese persimmons
- How to grow, forage, and use pawpaws