Throughout the swamps of the South grows a good-sized tree that even the pioneers who made extensive use of wood, left alone. While cedar, cypress, oak, and pine fell before the ax and were split for fence rails, shingles, clapboards, and other essentials, the black gum (Nyssa sylvatica) was shunned. Not that black gum, or black tupelo as it is sometimes called, didn't yield good wood. The fact was, that once down, a black gum log was nearly impossible to split with tools at hand.
The wood of the black gum has fibers not only interwoven but twisted to boot. And while modern tools and cutting edges can surmount this obstacle, even the sharpest ax and the most expertly wielded froe of yesteryear made little headway splitting it. Yet, our enterprising forebears did find use for the wood. Dead, hollow trees were dropped, then sawn into short sections. Fitted with flat wooden tops, they became hives for honey bees or holding pens for chickens and ducks.
And it wasn't hard to spot a dying black gum. Because the tree dies from the top down, demised branches and trunk pieces easily break off, in effect shortening the tree year by year.
Eventually, the unyielding wood of black gum filled the bill for heavy-duty tool handles, factory flooring, hard-working parts for farm machinery, conveyor rollers, and the core of hardwood plywood. And, veneer from the wood's unsplitable character made it the ideal material for berry baskets, for which it is still widely used.
Illustration: Jim Stevenson