A deciduous tree occasionally 100 ft high in the wild, with a trunk up to 5 ft in thickness and a furrowed bark. Leaves of variable shape, but oftenest obovate or oval, with a tapering base, 3 to 6 in. long, 11⁄2 to 3 in. wide, entire, usually perfectly glabrous in this country except on the young stalks and midrib, which are slightly hairy; stalk 1⁄2 to 1 in. long, frequently reddish. Flowers appearing in June, males and females on separate heads, 1⁄2 in. or less across, greenish, produced on a slender downy stalk about 1 in. long in the axils of the scales or lowermost leaves of the young shoots; male flowers numerous, female ones usually two to four in a head; they have no beauty. Fruits usually in pairs, each one 1⁄3 to 2⁄3 in. long, egg-shaped, bluish black.
Native of eastern N. America, chiefly found in swamps and ill-drained land; introduced some time in the first half of the 18th century. It was, until lately, quite scarce in cultivation, and few trees of any size exist in Britain. But Arthur Soames of Sheffield Park raised some four hundred plants from seed, many of which are now scattered about the grounds, vigorous and healthy. There is a curious diversity in the leaves of this species, not only in shape, but in lustre. Of two healthy trees at Kew growing within a few yards of each other, one has dull-surfaced leaves, the other has larger shining ones. The chief value of the tupelo in gardens, over and above its great interest, is the brilliant red and yellow of its autumnal foliage. Like many other American trees growing in wet situations at home, it thrives best in ordinary good loam when transplanted to our gloomier climate.
Loudon mentioned a tupelo in the Duke of Wellington’s grounds at Stratfield Saye, Hants, 30 ft high (Arb. et Frut. Brit. (1838), Vol. 3, p. 1317). This tree measured 74 × 51⁄2 ft in 1897 and was the only specimen of great size known to Elwes (Tr. Gr. Brit. & Irel., Vol. 3, p. 511 and plate 145). Still by far the largest in Britain, it now measures 80 × 71⁄2 ft (1968). The tree at Munden, Watford, which Elwes also mentions, is only 20 ft high, having lost its leader some time in the last century, but has a huge spread and is 61⁄4 ft in girth (1968). The largest example at Kew is 55 × 51⁄4 ft (1967). Of the many fine trees at Sheffield Park, mentioned above, one, planted in 1909, measures 48 × 33⁄4 ft (1968). At Chatsworth, Derb., the larger of two specimens measures 65 × 63⁄4 ft (1971).
var. biflora (Walt.) Sarg. N. biflora Walt. Swamp Tupelo. – This distinct variety, often treated as a separate species, occupies wetter situations than the typical variety and is confined to the coastal plains of the south-eastern USA. Botanically it differs in the relatively narrower leaves, which are mostly oblanceolate or oblong-elliptic and obtuse or rounded at the apex, and in having the female flowers mostly in pairs. It is probable, as suggested by Elwes and Henry, that the cultivated trees mentioned by Loudon under N. biflora were really the typical variety of N. sylvatica. On the other hand, it is not unlikely that some of the seed imported from America in the 18th and 19th centuries was of the swamp tupelo, and this might in part explain the rarity of old trees of N. sylvatica in Britain, since the variety needs warmer conditions and a longer growing season than the type and would not be so well adapted to our climate.