The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861

The Other Side of Beekeeping

Family Nyssaceae – The Sour Gum Family

- January 1, 2016 -

The family Nyssaceae is a very small family with perhaps 10 species and is frequently placed in the Dogwood family, the Cornaceae. This probably is the current trend. I have treated it here as the Nyssaceae because the North American 4 or 5 species (again depending on the taxonomist) are bee forages and belong to the genus Nyssa. There appears to be at least one, quite possibly two other members of the family (again depending on the taxonomist) in Asia. Depending on the reference, the family contains the genus Nyssa with 4-5 species from North America.

The 4- 5 North American species are found in Eastern North America with all but one (N. sylvatica) in the southern portion of that range. Nyssa sylvatica extends into Canada.

In North America the family consists of deciduous trees with scaly winter buds. The leaves are simple (not compound), are without stipules1, can be with or without teeth around their margin, and are placed alternately on the stem.

The flowers are small and can be perfect2, staminate or pistillate, sometimes with flowers of only one sex on a given plant. They can be placed in the juncture of a leaf stem and the stem to which the leaf is attached, or in terminal heads, spikes3 or umbels and are individually radially symmetrical.4

The calyx consists of 5 sepals, which in male flowers are minute, 5-toothed or are indistinct. The sepals in the female flowers are on a floral cup, positioned immediately above the ovary. There can be 5 or more petals or none, which when they exist are often very small, fleshy, and deciduous, and are not joined to each other (free).

The number of stamens equals can be equal to, or twice as many (sometimes more) as the petals, and in male flowers are inserted on the outside of the convex disc, usually in two whorls or in perfect flowers are inserted on the inner rim of the floral cup.

The floral components appear to arise from atop the ovary (ovary inferior) which is single-celled or with 6 to 10 cells, each with a single immature seed (ovule). The thin elongate portion of the pistil (style) is usually elongated with the section that sits atop it (stigma) being either simple or divided. The fruit is a drupe.5

For recognition in the field, try looking for simple leaves, alternately placed, without stipules.6 Then look for small greenish flower clusters that often arise from the angle between the main stem and a leaf stem (petiole) where the sexes are separate, or when both sexes are present, they often have two large white petal-like bracts below the flower cluster. Because there is so much variability in the family, looking for the family in the field is not easy. It would often be easier to simply learn to recognize the 4 or 5 (depending on the reference) U.S. species by recognizing their gross appearances.[3]

Ogeechee tupelo, white tupelo, river lime, Ogeche-lime, wild lime, sour gum

Scientific name: Nyssa ogeche

Synonyms: Nyssa acuminata

Origin: Native to at least North America. While the species is found in four states, it is found in only small portions of those states. For that reason the distribution map provides county distribution.

Plant description: Nyssa ogeche is polygamo-dioecious7 and is typically small and, sometimes described as shrubby, but potentially is a medium sized deciduous tree often with several leaning trunks and can attain heights of about 20m (~ 66 ft) often forming dense stands.

The brownish gray bark is somewhat variable with scaly or blocky ridges. The twigs are yellowish brown or reddish brown, somewhat pubescent, and have narrowly heart-shaped leaf scars. The terminal bud is a reddish brown, and about 0.25 inch (~0.6 mm) long and the pith is diaphragmed.8 The leaves are simple (not compound), alternately placed on their branches, pinnately9 veined and about 4 to 6 inches (~ 10.2 to 15.2 cm) long and 5 to 8 cm (~2 to 3.1 in) wide.

The small greenish white flowers appear with the leaves. The male flowers are borne in rounded compact hanging clusters. The female flowers are solitary on long stalks.
When ripe, the fruit is a tear-shaped reddish, fleshy, elongated drupe10, 1 to 1.5 inches (~2.5 to 3.8 cm) long and has a sour flavor. The juice can, and apparently has been used, as a substitute for lime, hence the common name ogeechee lime.[10 &15]

Distribution: The species is found in river swamps, floodplains, lake margins, bay heads and bottomland woods.[10, 15 &16] See also provided map for the state distribution. The photo shown looking westward across the Apalachicola River that frequently floods is one of the honey production areas of the species. The inland woody area near Clarksville, FL shown here is normally flooded but because of insufficient rain was dry the year of my visit. It is typical of an inland area in which the species may be found.

Blooming period:
 My admittedly limited exposure to the species indicates that the plant is in flower about the time the new leaves are fully formed. John Lovell[8] indicates January to May. The pictures provided here were taken in the early to middle part of the bloom the year they were taken (5/4/2005).

Importance as a honey plant: Despite its limited distribution, this is an important honey plant. Because of its two major characteristics, (flavor and non granulation) the honey from the species is marketed to the Middle East, given as gifts to dignitaries (foreign visitors, members of Congress and the Supreme Court, etc.).[6] It apparently demands …