Nyssa? I encountered several puzzled looks at the Collection Holders meeting earlier this year at the sight of my collection name badge. It seems this is not such a well-known genus of trees; oh, and that’s Nyssa with an 'i' as in miss, not with an i as in nice. You certainly can’t miss them come the autumn when they explode in a dazzling display of fiery colour. With cultivar names such as ‘ Wisley Bonfire’, ‘Valley Scorcher’, ‘Heddon Flame’ and ‘Inferno’, you begin to notice a theme and a clue to the season in which this tree holds pride of place.
No other garden holds a National Collection of Nyssa which is one of the reasons why former Exbury Head Gardener, John Anderson, chose the genus and set about planting in 2006. He was keen to extend the diversity of autumn planting and to allow seasonal interest to pass from the riotous rhododendrons of the Spring to the furious fire-dance of the Autumn, adding to already established favourites such as Liquidambar, Acer and Parrotia.
Taxonomy references place Nyssa either in Cornaceae (the dogwood family) or in its own family, Nyssaceae. The genus Nyssa takes its name from Nysseides, the Greek water nymph of rivers, streams, lakes and marshes and is known by the common name of Tupelo tree, a Native American word meaning swamp. It is a genus of about nine species of deciduous trees, five of which are found in swampy regions of eastern North America, while the others are found in Eastern Asia, and one in the west of Malaysia. There are eleven accepted species for the genus although the Plant List includes another thirty three species names. Reproduction is possible through seed germination and cuttings, however, grafting is used to preserve the characteristics of named cultivars.
Nyssa sylvatica, the most widely grown species in the UK, was introduced in the 1750s from eastern North America and is known by several common names including Tupelo, Black gum tree, Cotton gum, Pepperidge, and Sour gum tree. It received its AGM in 1993. We have one or two older examples of N. sylvatica which can grow to between 15m and 30m tall with drooping lower branches and obovate or oval leaves that turn spectacular shades of yellow, orange and scarlet in autumn. The black tupelo tree is the longest living non-clonal flowering plant in Eastern North America where it can live for over 650 years.
Many cultivars have been produced from this species and several of them feature in Exbury's collection, including N. sylvatica 'Wisley Bonfire', named for the well-known tree at the RHS Gardens, Wisley. It is a broadly columnar in shape with glossy, dark green oval foliage that turns brilliant red in the autumn. N. sylvatica 'Jermyns Flame' is a form that was selected by John Hillier in 1985 from specimens in the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens & Arboretum. It has relatively large leaves that turn striking hues of red, yellow and orange in the autumn. N. sylvatica 'Sheffield Park' was selected from one of the many plants raised by Arthur Soames of the National Trust garden at Sheffield Park in East Sussex. The brilliant orange-red colouring starts two or three weeks before other Nyssa.
N. sylvatica 'Autumn Cascade' is a small tree with a weeping habit that was raised in Australia. A rare form, it produces rounded green leaves in spring and summer, changing to vibrant red and orange in the autumn. It grows up to 4 metres tall with a spread of 3 metres. N. sylvatica 'Miss Scarlet' is a small, branching tree with dark-green foliage becoming scarlet in the autumn. It can grow up to 10m tall and 8m across.
The young foliage of N. sylvatica 'Red Red Wine' is red, but gradually turns green only to turn back to rich red tones in autumn. It eventually makes a medium-sized tree. N. sylvatica ‘Dirr’, N. sylvatica ‘Haymanred’, N. sylvatica ‘High Beeches’, N. sylvatica ‘Highlight’, N. sylvatica ‘Isabel Grace’, N sylvatica ‘Lakeside Weeper’, N. sylvatica ‘Pendula’, N. sylvatica ‘Valley Scorcher’, N. sylvatica ‘Zydeco Twist’ and N. sylvatica ‘Wild Fire’, are all part of our collection at Exbury and considered among the best. N. sylvatica var. biflora is a subspecies which evolved in the wetlands of North Carolina, Florida and Louisiana, where it is known as the Swamp tupelo. It has slightly narrower, more leathery leaves and rather flat berries.
North American tupelos produce small, greenish white flowers, borne in clusters at the top of a long stalk providing a rich source or nectar for bees.
These are followed by a black-blue, ovoid stone fruit, about 10 mm long with a thin, oily, bitter-to-sour tasting flesh which is attractive to wildlife and gives the tree its common name of Sour gum. They are most often dioecious so a male and female tree in proximity is required to set seed; however, many are also polygamo-dioecious, having both male and female flowers on the same tree. Some of the Nyssa have flowered at Exbury and this year four trees have produced fruit. The flowers are interesting and the fruits can be attractive in a good year especially on N sinensis, something to look out for as the trees mature.
We have several Nyssa sinensis, or Chinese tupelo. Discovered by Augustine Henry in 1888 and cultivated in Europe in 1902, N. sinensis has fewer cultivars and is smaller than N. sylvatica. It is broadly conical in shape, growing up to 10m tall and wide. Its young foliage is tinged with red and it has a more brilliant display of autumnal colour than N. sylvatica. Nyssa sinensis is particularly at home in areas with wet soils or near ponds and streams although we have had a few fatalities with these trees.
N. sinensis Nymans form has particularly attractive young foliage. You will see this tree growing beside Top Pond and above the Bottom Pond in Home Wood, opposite the stone bridge. Our N. sinensis cultivars include, “Heddon Flame’, ‘Inferno’, ‘Jim Russell’, and ‘Savill Sparkler’.
The water tupelo, N. aquatica, also called Cotton gum, or Swamp gum, is a narrow tree having ovate-oblong leaves, the young shoots being downy beneath. This tree is rarely seen in cultivation in the UK where it stays small, though it reaches 30m tall in its native US, where it grows in swamps along with Taxodium distichum, often developing a characteristic swollen base. Exbury can boast two N. aquatica, one of which was awarded Champion Tree status for height in England (6 metres), and Champion in Hampshire for height and girth (10 cms) in 2017. Amazingly this tree has been recorded on our data base as having survived below -9 degrees in January 2009. You can see the characteristic swollen base developing in this tree and in the other N. aquatica growing in the Acer Avenue on the left of Top Pond. Tupelo wood comes mostly from the Water tupelo. It is pale yellow to light brown, fine-textured, and strong. It is used for carving and making crates and boxes, flooring, wooden utensils, and veneers.
The Ogeechee lime, N. ogeche, is a rarer North American tupelo that produces edible fruits from which honey is made. Bee keepers in Florida keep beehives along the river swamps on platforms or floats during the tupelo blooming time to produce certified tupelo honey, which can fetch a high price because of its light, mild flavour. Its red fruits have been used as a substitute for limes, which gave rise to its common name. We began with two of these but only one remains in the garden and it is planted above the Jubilee Ponds in Yard Wood.
N. sylvatica var. ursina is the Bear tupelo from northern Florida with creamy white flowers. It is somewhat rare in the UK. You will find our little bear on the edge of Top Pond close to the Japanese Bridge, ready to put on an autumn display that will be mirrored in the pond and add to the magnificent reflections of Taxodium, Acer and Metasequioa .
There are three main areas of planting in the Gardens all of them giving the required conditions of moist but well drained, neutral to acid soil; all that is then needed is a good hot summer to produce the best autumn colour, so in this record braking summer of 2018, we look forward to seeing a fantastic display. In Yard Wood several Nyssa are to be found around the Jubilee Pond area and at the head of the cascades can be found our N. aquatica, Champion. Across the Azalea Drive on the right in the Wildlife Pond area, is our oldest Nyssa sylvatica standing very close to a large Liquidambar styraciflua. Together they are sure to steal the scene and set the landscape ablaze.
A few Nyssa are planted along the main drive in the area of the Iris Garden. The others can be found in Home Wood on the edges of the very popular Top Pond and through the gap to the left along the Acer Avenue.
Our collection at Exbury Gardens is still very young and we have plenty of choice when it comes to adding to it in the future including, perhaps, specimens of the species N. javanica, N. leptophylla, N. shangszeensi, N. talamancana and N.yunnanensis. Meanwhile we continue to watch these rewarding trees as they develop, grow and pay homage to the water nymphs.