All About Tupelo Wood
The Botanical Names:
Tupelo is known by many names-black gum, sour gum, water tupelo, pepperidge swamp tupelo, bay poplar, olive tree, swamp gum, tupelo gum, cotton gum, and yellow gum. Historically, lumbermen and foresters have insisted on calling this tree gum; however, a gum fluid has never been associated with the tree. The title of pepperidge seems derived from an old English word for the barberry bush. Tupelo is translated from the Creek Indian language-eto, meaning "tree," and opelwv, meaning "swamp."   
The botanical names for these two trees are Nyssa sylvatica and Nyssa aquatica. It is derived from the Latin name Nyssa, a water  nymph of classical Greek mythology. Sylvatica means of the forest, while aquatica means of the water. This small family of three genera and eight species of shrubs and trees is native to eastern North America and China, including Tibet. Only tupelos are native to North America. The tupelo genus is small as well,  with five species-two in eastern Asia and the remaining three in eastern  North America. Fossil records of preglacial species indicate that tupelos were at one time more widely distributed across Europe, Asia, and North America.        
Characteristics and Use: 
Although not well known, these large, abundant trees offer tremendous rewards for the manufacturer. The tree reaches a maximum of 125 feet tall and 6 feet in diameter. Average-sized trees are 60-80 feet high and 1-3 feet in diameter. The simple leaves are two to three inches long, shiny, and dark green in color. The fruit is a dark blue fleshy berry, resembling a small plum, while the bark of old trees resembles alligator  hide. The wood of the different tupelos is quite similar in appearance and properties. It has fine, uniform texture and interlocked grain. Tupelo  wood is rated as moderately heavy (35 pounds per cubic ft.),  moderately strong, hard, stiff, and moderately high in shock  resistance.   Tupelo is low-to-moderate in decay resistance. Its color ranges from a very white sapwood to yellowish or brownish-gray streaked heartwood with an indistinct pattern. The lighter colored sapwood is generally several inches wide. Classified as moderately weak when used for beams or posts, the wood is moderately limber, below average in matching properties, and intermediate in nail-holding and resistance to splitting. The submerged portions of trees growing in swamps or flooded areas contain wood that is much lighter in weight than that from upper portions of the same trees. Tupelo is used for lumber, veneer, pulpwood, and to some extent for railway ties and slack cooperage. Utilized primarily for shipping containers and interior parts of furniture, the lumber is also used for crate and basket veneers, box shooks, rollers, mallets, rough floors,  mine timbers, and fuel. It is used extensively in the veneer and panel industry for crossbanding, plywood cores, and backs. The wood can be readily pulped and is used for high-grade book and magazine papers. In the past, the hollow trunks were used for "bee gums" to hold beehives. It takes a finish, including enamel, very well. Therefore, it is often used for furniture, fixtures, woodworking, cabinets, and novelties. Readily available as lumber and veneer, it is considered an inexpensive wood. 

 Distribution and Outlook: 
Water tupelo grows in swamps and in the flood plains of streams, here it might be submerged a few months each winter and spring. Often it grows in pure stands along the Coastal Plain from Virginia to Texas, and along the Mississippi River up to southern Illinois. Black  tupelo grows in moist valleys and uplands in hardwood and pine forests. It is located in the eastern half of the United States, Canada and Mexico and has the more plentiful growing range of the two tupelos. These trees are fast growing in well-drained bottomlands, but slow growing in swampy sites. They are long-lived and begin flowering and fruiting when they are about 30 years old. Flowers appear in spring when leaves are nearly grown, while the fruits mature in autumn. The small, greenish flowers are an excellent source of nectar for bees. Black bear and foxes frequently eat the fruit, while deer and beaver browse the twigs and foliage. It is a food source for wood ducks, wild turkey, robins, pileated woodpeckers,  mockingbirds, and thrushes. Brilliant, blazing red autumn coloring and abundant blue fruit make these trees excellent for shade and ornamental planting in many subdivisions. Tupelo wood is important to the lumber and veneer industry. The 1992 survey of net volume of saw timber covering the eastern United States indicates that there are 33.6 billion board feet of tupelo, representing  four percent of the total volume available of all sawtimber in the United States. About two-thirds of the production of tupelo lumber is from the Southern states. 

Because of the interlocked grain, drying tupelo lumber requires extra care. The wood is difficult to dry because it shrinks greatly during seasoning and has a tendency to warp because of its grain. It requires special seasoning and drying before it can be successfully glued. 

 Note: This article came form a continuing series on American tree species appearing monthly in Southern Lumberman magazine provided by the Southeastern Lumber Manufacturers Association. 
In choosing a piece of tupelo you have to first have a good idea of what you want to carve and in what pose. I prefer to have the outside/top grain of a full decorative bird facing the "show side" because it textures more evenly. I plan that from the beginning. Most precut blocks of wood have the grain slanted one way or the other because the tree is round. My idea of the best tupelo for fine decorative carving is as follows:

1. I choose outside sapwood preferably with some bark still on it. 
2. The wood should come from the bell of the tree as close to the waterline or "swamp  bottom line" as you can get. I can usually tell by the angle of the bark & growth rings. 
3. The wood should be light-weight, but dense grain almost white in color with no hard grain lines running through it and not pithy. I run my thumb nail across the end to check if the end grain has a  wash-board ripple feel to it. If so, I reject it. I also take a tupelo knife with me and shave across grain to see if it shaves to leave a carved surface smooth as carved soap. 
4. Any wood that has checks, knots or worm holes that appear to run deep, I reject. 
5. Generally I rely on my  harvester and trust him because he really knows how to get good wood right from the beginning. 

Very seldom do I find a bad piece while in the process of carving it, but it can happen . You can't see all that is  inside that block from the outside, but you can improve your odds by the means I have described here. 
How to Select a Block of Tupelo Wood for a Wildfowl Carving:
The Reasons I Prefer Tupelo to Basswood:

I carve and burn very fine detail in decorative floating waterfowl and I find that I cannot burn as fine on basswood as I can on tupelo. I believe the reason for that is because tupelo has no resin in  it and the lack of it makes a more narrow cut with my very sharp burning pen. The heat from a burning tool mixed with the resin in the basswood makes a wider cut than the same cut made in tupelo. This translates into being able to put more lines per inch in tupelo than in basswood. 

Also I carve a lot of floating decoys and I find that I had rather add weight to a bird to make it float correctly than be required to hollow it to get the bouyancy right. More often than not, one has to hollow a basswood decoy out for proper floatation, especially on the larger ones. I often have to add weight to the tupelo decoy, but that is very easy to do. Sometimes the tupelo decoy floats almost perfect without any additional weight to bring it down into the water. Just a small amount to adjust minor listing is usually all that is required.

I also find that tupelo dust is less irritating should you inadvertingly breath it in. It seems that the tupelo fibers are softer and are handled better by the sinuses and lungs.

Tupelo is as available to me as basswood and much lighter to ship, saving some on shipping charges but often is more per board foot than basswood.  A few bucks more for a $3500.- $5000. carving is no big deal for carvers that get this for their work however. 

Tupelo is also available in much larger thicknesses for those fancy poses and large birds without having to glue two or three blocks together as with basswood..

Tupelo wood seals deeply and is suitable for either oil paints or acrylics. 

Tupelo does not split as easily as basswood and therefore you can carve anatomical features much thinner and with more detail without fear of them breaking as easy. One still has to take into consideration the direction of grain however with both species of wood. I like carving with my tupelo knife and I can carve in any direction smoothly with tupelo without fear of splitting or digging in.

The fuzzing of basswood when sanding or power carving is not a problem with tupelo though the fuzzing of basswood can be taken care of with one or two extra steps. 

Overall, I find that tupelo is preferred by most of the world champion wildfowl carvers in the U.S. and in Canada; both for floating decorative decoys and for all categories of wildfowl carvings. I am sure their preferences are for the same reasons I have mentioned here.  
Vic Kirkman Originals 
School of Wildfowl Art