March 2021: Letter from the President

Spring has arrived so quickly that we can almost forget what February was like.  Recently, I attended a harbinger of the season, the Arbor Day tree planting at the Memphis Botanic Garden. The tree planted this year, in the southwest part of the garden, is a ‘Wildfire’ Blackgum, nyssa sylvatica ‘Wildfire,’ a tree that is a splendid scarlet in the autumn. Blackgum is a slow grower, but eventually this six-foot-tall youngster will grow to more than eighty feet tall and become a dramatic spot of flaming color for those driving by on Park Avenue.

The name of the species is misleading, since the Blackgum does not produce a gum or latex of any kind, nor does it produce a gumball (whew!).  It is, however, a fantastic tree for supporting migratory birds and honey-producing bees.  Honey vendors prize the Blackgum because of its honey, Tupelo honey, has a distinctive flavor and is a costlier product than other honey types.

I reflected on this newly planted tree as I was reading The Big Herbs, by Paul Strauss, in which he gives the herb label to more than forty trees, including Blackgum. I pondered, “Is Blackgum an herb?” The American Herb Society cites horticulturalist Holly Shimizu’s definition of an herb as any of those plants valued “for their flavor, fragrance, medicinal qualities, insecticidal qualities, economic or industrial use, or in the case of dyes, for the coloring material they provide.” The Blackgum would definitely qualify as having economic use in the production of a valued honey, not to mention the value of its cross-grained wood used for mauls, handles, floors and other objects demanding a wood that is very resistant to splitting.

The older Blackgum in the MBG Herb Garden is in the Native American section for good reason. According to curator Sherri, there are a number of Native American uses of the Blackgum as an herb, detailed on ethnobotanical databases: the bark was used as an emetic and opthalmic, an infusion was used as a bath or for children with worms, an ooze from the roots served as eye drops, and other parts had anti-cancer properties.  Yes, Blackgum is a big herb!

At our February meeting, Dr. Tyson Smith in his presentation on the history of beekeeping showed pictures of the “Bee Gums” of early beekeepers.  I am now able to connect these “Bee Gums” to the Blackgum tree!  In The Big Herbs, Paul Strauss says that “hollow sections of Black Gum would be cut into short sections for beehives,” hence the name “Bee Gums” for bee hives, and perhaps the popular name Blackgum for the tree.   
Among the crowd in attendance at the Arbor Day event were officials of Memphis City Beautiful, who are celebrating their 90th anniversary this year with a citywide program to “Plant the Town Red.” After we witnessed the planting of a tree with red fall color, attendees went away with free saplings and seed packets promoting red plantings. I came away aiming to plant red blooming herbs in my small space—my favorite salvia, Pineapple sage; Cardinal flower; Monarda, Bee Balm; Rudbeckia, maybe ‘Cherry Brandy’; Nasturtium; and more. For more information on how you can participate and help “Plant the Town Red” (or your neighboring town), see below.

Enjoy this spring weather in the garden, plant some red, and then join us on March 26 at 7 p.m. when our own awesome herbalists Ginger and Rick Winn introduce us to “The Wonders of CBD.”  
Kathy James

Kathy James
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