Mystery Tree ID

This tree is growing in Southwest Virginia. There are plenty of maple, oak, poplar and hickory nearby. Mature section of forest, probably not logged in 100 years or more.

It’s probably a bit over a foot in diameter and straight and tall, probably well over 50’. It just so happens there was this small bit of leaves about 8’ off the ground I could barely reach a camera to. The bark is what first caught my attention, I didn’t immediately recognize what it was.

The bark is slightly reminiscent of basswood but the leaves are certainly different, they look more like… Well I’m not sure what.

I’m pretty good at ID’ing trees, my father is far better, he had no idea what it was either. It’s probably something simple and we’re just “missing the forest for the trees”, but so far I’ve no idea… Any thoughts?


Maybe cucumber tree

The leaves are not big enough to be cucumber magnolia.



I think it’s NYSSA SYLVATICA (black gum).

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Hmm… We examined this tree about a year ago and I just now got around to posting about it. I’m pretty sure we discussed whether it could be Black Gum or not at the time, and for some reason thought it wasn’t. But I admit there’s a lot of similarities so perhaps it is… Hmm…

Black Gum == Tupelo but Black Gum is the name I’ve always heard around here. Very pretty in the fall, produces a lot of seeds and seedlings come up everywhere. Have one in the backyard, have mowed down a ton of 'em. Anyway, here are pics of the leaves and bark of the backyard one. The bark is very similar, differences could just be based on age I suppose. Leaves are very similar even to the point of the vein pattern. Some veins directly opposite, some not. So maybe that’s what it is and it just fooled us that day…


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I calls 'em as I sees 'em…don’t recall an earlier discussion, or Which my earlier opinion might have been.

Tupelo is slightly different tree I believe…nyssa acquatica or nyssa ogeche or nyssa biflora
that grow in the deep south are
different than nyssa sylvatica that inhabits dry lands all through the eastern USA to Canada.

Sourwood is a somewhat related tree (oxydendrum arboreum) and could be confused at some points. (Let me know if you or any nearby folk in VA or NC have some sourwood honey already!)

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Ah, I was thinking Tupelo and Black Gum were the same. Per:

This one is on a moderately dry hillside at least.

I only have a few black gum around here,
So not as familiar with them.
The ones I do have , have bark like your last pics of the backyard tree.
I do have several cucumber trees here…
The bark and leafs look exactly like your first pictures.
Cucumber lumber tree …
That still my guess

The few leaves which were down low enough for me to get a good look at were considerably smaller than those on a cucumber tree. They could have simply been immature though. The ones higher up, hard to judge size at that distance, but pretty sure they were smaller as well. I admit the leaves and bark do look similar, but I’ve seen plenty of cucumber tree and these leaves were half their size or less. Or at least they appeared to be…

Pic of leaves/bark of a cucumber tree:

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The leaf pattern of 3 leaves on alternating sides of the limb throws me off, I can’t find anything like that.

I’m not going to lose sleep over it…but Michael Dirr says all the species of gum live in Virginia and much of the east. The difference in Nyssa aquatica is it can live in flooded land just like cypress all year long. Nyssa sylvatica cannot. Most of the southern tupelo have larger leaves and fruit than Nyssa sylvatica. There is also a Chinese black gum.

The online encyclopedia can be interesting and a quick solution to some problems, but it’s not on the above quote.

Here’s a pic of cucumber magnolia From discover life
Showing leafs grouped in clusters of 3, as Andy Smith pointed out.
Also , in your last pic , the leafs are in 3s.
As are they on the the lower branches of your original pic.
Still thinking cucumber magnolia

May not always be in 3s , but looks like they tend to be ?

Cucumber tree leaves (per Wikipedia) are between about 4 1/2" to almost 10" long. Which jives with what I’ve seen in this part of the country, they’re usually on the large side.

The biggest of these were maybe at the bottom edge of that range, best I could see at least… So yeah it certainly could be that, just nags at me that the leaves weren’t larger. Perhaps they’re larger in youth and grow smaller as the tree ages and grows taller? Will try to get some better pictures next time I’m there, it’s a bit of a hike to where it’s at.

Good observation on the leaf grouping @AndySmith. Here is a zoom in to better show the leaf grouping, 3 per stem, with the center one usually smaller. Which seems to match that image you posted @Hillbillyhort

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I think leaf size can vary by nutrition / health of a tree.
Leaf arrangements. Being more stable .
Also gum tree bark is described as alligator bark.
With cross checkering , and kind of woven ( as is the wood grain )
Cucumber Bark having straighter ridges less cross checking, as your photos show.

Also cucumber magnolia has a strong aroma when leafs / twigs are crushed , like tulip poplar, gum not so much as I remember.
So you could check that.
And if a cucumber tree, you should be able to find some old seed pods on the ground ?

Great points and insight. I’m not as attune to the smell of trees, other than spicewood/spicebush which is quite aromatic when crushed. And I suppose cedar and a few others… Will pay attention to those things next time.


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Yah, i did not use to smell things .
But a naturalist friend of mine that I spent time with would smell everything. So I started . Can often help with IDs , hard to describe in words . To tell someone else, but you will remember the aroma.

I’m voting cuke, too. Leaves in groups of 3; that epicormic sprout looks like a cuke sprout.
I went out in the yard to compare - I have a cucumbertree magnolia and a blackgum growing about 30 ft apart. The cuke leaves are not as big as I’d ‘remembered’. Lots of little dessicated aborted seedpods on the ground.
A mature blackgum that size would, indeed have ‘alligator’ bark, rivaling a big old persimmon.
While they’re not exceedingly common anywhere, I’ve seen a few cucumbertrees that were very much a ‘timber’ tree with straight, open bole.

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