November 9, 2010

We are Leaderless

This is not a post about the recent midterm elections in the US.  Do not assume that from the title.  It is a post about the shape of this Black gum, Nyssa sylvatica.  It is saddle shaped, with a swale at the top of its little canopy.  Flat headed.  Where is its top leader branch?
June 2009
Leafing out in spring 2010
I planted it in 2006.  I wrote about my love of Black gums --- also called tupelos or pepperidge trees --- earlier this year.  They are beautiful native trees.  A stand of three ancient ones at Elizabeth Park in Hartford is breathtaking, especially in fall:
You can see that they have a naturally tiered, horizontal branch structure.  That is part of their charm: the strong architectural pattern.  I love it, I love the fall color, and I love the glossy small green leaves in summer.

But I am not loving the funny flat shape of the young tree I planted.  It is leaderless.  It's even funnier looking in fall, when, true to form, it colors up so beautifully, which highlights its shape against the dry brown meadow.
The flat top, crooked trunk, and green mesh plastic (to protect it from bucks rubbing their antlers on the bark of my young trees) gives this sapling a comic appearance.  It looks like it is trying to wiggle out of its plastic skirt, and it looks silly.

So in November, when the leaves dropped, I went out and inspected this closely.  It's only five feet tall, so the main branch structure was right at my eye level.  When I looked closely, this is what I saw:
At some point the top of the little trunk had been cut, and a side branch (at the blue arrow) grew out from the cut.  The leader had been eliminated, never a good thing for a growing tree.  I have not pruned this tree; the leader must have been chopped off when it was very small, before I bought it.  I just never noticed.

I went back to a fuzzy photo I took in 2006 when it was first planted, and sure enough, there is the crooked little top branch angling away to the side.  But I thought it was part of its horizontal branch heritage; I thought it was supposed to look that way.  Now I know it isn't.

I have another Black gum in my front yard, also a small tree, although about twice the size of Miss Wiggles in the back yard.  It too has the stiff branching pattern, and it was a lovely deep red in October.  It has a little crook in the lower trunk just like my other little sapling. 
But it looks like a real tree, dammit, with a top leader and a pyramidal form.  You can see the leader stretching for the sky at the top.  Don't ever "top" trees by chopping off the main stem, it doesn't promote a fuller crown the way pinched stems produce a bushier coleus.  It just deforms a tree.

What to do about the wiggly flat topped tree with no leader?

Well, I need to give it some direction.  I'm going to drive a big stake in the ground, tie the angled topmost branch to it, and gently pull that branch into a more upright, vertical orientation.  Over time, pressure from being tied that way may lock that crooked branch into a straighter position and create a vertical leader.  I hope it will work.

Because I don't want any of my trees to grow up leaderless.


  1. Nothing worse than a leaderless tree. I hope your guidance gives your trees a better lead.

  2. Laurrie, that sounds like a good plan for your tree. I was blessed with a clump of tupelos when I moved into my current house, and they are a treasure.

  3. I love black gum, even though I have never set eyes on one before. I read about them in one of my tree books and looked up photos and have been desiring one ever since. Love the colour of them in your photos. Sounds like a good plan trying to convert your branch into a leader, best of luck.

  4. Laurrie, I'm sure by pure determination of your will that leaderless tree will fall into line!

  5. Lisa, hee hee, I need to get my trees to obey!

    Cyndy, now that I have planted tupelos I am starting to recognize them where they grow wild in the swampy woods around us. They really are beautiful.

    Marguerite, I hope you end up planting one. They are hardy for you, and one would look so nice shading your white house.

    Whimsical Gardener, I am determined! We'll see how far that gets me with this tree, though.

  6. A similar thing happened to one of my Japanese maple saplings. I did exactly what you plan to do, and it turned out fine. Today it is a beautiful tree. Good luck with yours. The fall color is spectacular!

  7. Great idea! (Although the tree is cute in a "Charlie Brown" kinda way) :)

  8. Deborah, I'm glad to know pulling the angled branch upright actually worked for you. I'm encouraged that it might work here.

    Garden Ms. S, it really is as goofy looking as a Charlie Brown Christmas tree!


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