On a July day two years ago, after walking the roadside for several hundred yards, an impulse led me down an unmarked path into the Wellfleet woods. I imagined it might be a shortcut to the beach, but what I found was even better.
I was astonished at how, after only a minute of walking, I was engulfed by the forest. Its overstory was primarily pitch pine, black oak, and white oak — a pine-barren forest acclimated to the Cape’s acidic, sandy soils, and stretching for miles. The understory appeared nondescript at first, but a closer look revealed diversity: lowbush blueberry, huckleberry, wintergreen, and cat briar were the main players, giving way to colonies of inkberry where there was more soil moisture. Sweetfern dotted the path’s edge. A layer of damp pine needles permeated the air with a sweet, earthy smell. Patches of sand poked through everywhere, sometimes covered with bearberry.
I finally emerged at Ocean View Drive, crossed over, and took a fire road to the top of a sand dune above crashing waves and water as far as the eye could see.
On the way back, and by accident, my path traversed a hilltop — I later learned this was Gross Hill — where the woods suddenly changed. The trees were of a single species standing close together, straight and uniform, but twisting in the upper crown. Their bark was light gray, and their tops exploded in dense twigginess silhouetted against the gray sky. This structure and the leaves were unmistakable to my forester’s eye, but completely unexpected: these were tupelos.
After seeing that first grove, I studied the landscape, looking for clues about how those trees got there. They formed a dense stand for about 50 yards with the largest trees in the center. There were no others in these woods. Not one. My quest had begun.
I dove into the research to make sense of what I saw and my appreciation of Nyssa sylvatica grew deeper. “Tales From the Blackgum, a Consummate Subordinate Tree,” by Marc Abrams, was no longer esoteric — it was essential reading.
I learned that tupelo (or blackgum, black tupelo, or sourwood) is the longest-lived hardwood species east of the Mississippi — known to live 650 years or more.
Nyssa sylvatica loves bottomland sites but can grow upland as well. In fact, it does a lot of things well, contributing to its great range from Texas to Maine. Rich soils, poor soils, wet or dry, understory or in the open, it doesn’t seem to matter, although tupelo is almost never the dominant species in any forest.
Tupelo, I also learned, is native to Cape Cod. They must have been cut — like the rest of the forest — by settlers who cleared the land to heat their homes and establish farms. The forest that exists here now is only about 100 to 140 years old; it owes its fast establishment to the quick-growing pitch pine, followed by black oak, white oak, and other species.
Despite its ability to grow in poor soils, the very slow-growing tupelo would not have been able to keep up here — unless some got lucky. And here lies a hypothesis. The primary way tupelo trees spread over long distances is by birds eating the fruit and scattering seeds. Maybe there was a random tupelo seed drop on Gross Hill long ago, paired with a happenstance disturbance that allowed it to survive among its competitors. A blowdown? A fire? Maybe someone cleared the woods here — indeed, there is an abandoned house foundation nearby.
I hiked every trail I could find in Wellfleet, “off map” or on, slowly learning the terrain and patterns of plant communities, all the while scanning for Nyssa sylvatica. Then, to my great delight, they started appearing.
The distinct horizontal branch pattern with stubby twigs poked out of a stand of trees growing from the muck between closely connected Herring Pond and Gull Pond. According to books, this is exactly where one would expect to find a tupelo, standing quietly with sassafras, highbush blueberry, ferns, and other plants that love wet, more nutrient-rich soil.
The joy of this discovery carried a bit of disappointment. It confirmed that the find on Gross Hill was not quite the anomaly I imagined.
The next grove took my breath away. I’d been pursuing another mini-obsession, wild cranberry, along the Head of the Meadow bike trail in Truro, when, lifting my head, I saw it from 400 yards away: a dome rising above a field of blackberry, beach plum, arrowwood, and swaths of non-native cattail.
I made a beeline to the trees but found a thicket blocking the way. I pushed away some branches and ducked in, stepping into a magical, terrarium-like world, where the cattails and brush were replaced by ferns, moss, and grass.
There was a channel of water. The 60-foot-tall trunks of the tupelos rose straight up, then began to twist like the columns of the baldacchino in St. Peter’s Basilica. Again, there was a clear epicenter of older trunks. The root systems were likely all connected, meaning these might all be the same tree, genetically speaking.
Starry-eyed, I retraced my steps back to the parking lot and drove out to Route 6, passing two smaller groves along the way. I’d missed them before, but now I was getting good at this.
I found the largest grove of all in the High Head area of Truro. It is clearly seen from the highway but tucked way back along a dirt road. I parked and walked in, though the mosquitos and greenheads were out in full force.
The grove was magnificent, with 40 to 50 trees in a 60-yard circle, forming about a 60-foot-high dome. The grove was crisscrossed with water channels. The otherworldly interior suggested Yoda’s home on Dagobah. The biting flies forced an escape from this empire of trees — I ran the entire way back to the car.
Finding tupelos in the Beech Forest in Provincetown crowned this year of discovery. Unlike the other tupelo grove locations, this one was reached by a much-visited trail in the Cape Cod National Seashore. It seemed to me the Seashore might want to change the name here from “Beech Forest” to “Tupelo Forest” for all of the Nyssa sylvatica found inside it. The trees form a nearly continuous stand all the way around the loop’s two lily-covered ponds, equaling the beech in number.
I admired the striking contrast between the bark of the two trees, their canopy patterns, and their gnarly roots. The protection that the beech trees had long ago meant that the tupelos here were protected, too. If there was a way to look back in time at Cape Cod’s forest before European settlers, this was it.
I still don’t fully understand the origin of the Gross Hill tupelo grove — the one that started this journey. But I better understand the tupelo’s essence. I know where it wants to be, how it thrives. My quest revealed something about my own need for growth, too. In discovering tupelo groves on Cape Cod, I reconnected with the excitement all arborists have when what they’re learning about trees is new.
Doug Still grew up in Hyannis Port and spent a pandemic year with friends in Wellfleet. He was the city forester of Providence, R.I. before becoming an independent arborist. For information on a tupelo grove walk he is leading on Aug. 14, write him at [email protected]. A longer version of this story was published in the May/June 2022 issue of the Society of Municipal Arborists’ journal, City Trees.