Thursday, September 18, 2014


Nyssa sylvatica is a native tree that has fascinated me. I have planted several -- two in the front yard, one at the bridge by the dry creek bed, and a couple on the back hill.

Fall color is stunning, the form is shapely, and the leaves are deep green and glossy. A nice tree.

It is stiffly branched, with hard wood that does not break in heavy snow storms. The lower branches sweep down gracefully, like a pin oak's. Even my young trees want to drape their lower skirts, and as a yard tree I have to limb them up.

For some reason Nyssa has several intriguing common names. Many know this as black gum, and that's how I usually refer to it.

But this tree is also very commonly called tupelo, or black tupelo to distinguish it from the well known southern tupelo.

It is also called pepperidge, and the cookies you buy from Pepperidge Farm feature a silhouette of a big pepperidge tree on the cookie bag.

Now I learn it has another common name.

While touring Martha's Vineyard this week, we found out that the islanders refer to black gums / pepperidges / tupelos by another name with an interesting history: they call these trees beetlebungs.

The wood of Nyssa sylvatica is a perfect material for the bungs (stoppers) in casks. Martha's Vineyard was a whaling powerhouse in the 1800s and needed lots of casks for whale oil and lots of bungs to stopper them. Local tupelos provided the best material for bungs. The wood is hard, and won't shrink when dry or swell when it is wet.

The beaters they used to pound the bungs into the casks were called beetles, back to Shakespeare's day. The very hard wood of the local tupelos made good mallet heads, or beetles.
So the cask makers on Martha's Vineyard referred to these native trees by their usefulness: they called them beetlebung trees.

It's very specific to Martha's Vineyard. Nearby Nantucket Island was a whaling center as well, and tupelos grew there and were used for stoppers and mallets, but no one on Nantucket calls them beetlebungs. It just caught on with the islanders on Martha's Vineyard.

Our trip was great. We saw Polly Hill arboretum, which is a treasure. Polly began planting trees on an old sheep farm she inherited in the center of the island. She began this when she was 50 years old. She planted everything from seed -- oaks, hollies, beetlebungs, stewartias, conifers of all kinds.

And she lived to see her seedlings become 50 year old specimens, as she died at age 100, still sharp and by then a legend in horticultural research.

There was even a sassafras grove in Polly's arboretum, well maintained and limbed up. I would have liked to meet Polly Hill.

We also got to tour several private gardens on the island that were professionally maintained and opulent. There is money on Martha's Vineyard.

We visited Oak Bluffs, of course. And Gay Head. And we saw boats and yachts and schooners in the harbor. We had ice cream in Vineyard Haven and seafood on the dock in Edgartown.

We saw the lace walls that the sheep farmers built all over the island. Apparently sheep go nuts when they can't see what's on the other side of a wall, so farmers built their stone walls with little views through them.

The mid September weather was lovely, but Martha's Vineyard is in one of the worst droughts the islanders can remember. They've had less rain than we got here this summer. Irrigated private gardens were lush, but everywhere else the lawns and fields were brown.

The summer crowds that swamp the island were gone, and the President and his security retinue had left, so Martha's Vineyard was quiet, the air was cool and nice, and we enjoyed it immensely.

I particularly enjoyed learning about beetlebungs!

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