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Saturday
Dec312016

Beetlebung to Them

When I first started seeing the word "beetlebung" in place-names on Martha's Vineyard — Beetlebung Corners, the Beetlebung Café — I thought that the origin of the word was going to be a famous children's story that I'd never heard of written by a local author in 1905. The word as a Tolkienian sound to it that fosters images of bent little trees with crooked branches.

Beetlebung leavesIn fact, it refers to Nyssa sylvatica, otherwise known as the blackgum, sourgum, and black tupelo, depending where you are in its vast geographical range. I remember being introduced to the tree, which I had previously entirely overlooked, by NYU professor Cal Heusser during our many class field trips to the Tuxedo Woods on the border of New Jersey and New York. As I recall he considered it to be an understory tree, topping out beneath the maples, beeches, and oaks and roughly the same size as a hophornbeam or a hornbeam. In the southern portion of its range, however, it is apparently a canopy tree, standing between 60 and 100 feet tall.

Prof. Heusser generally referred to plants by their Latin ("real") names, often just the genus if it was the only representative at hand, as was the case for Nyssa. Its relatives, the water tupelo (N. aquatica) and the swamp tupelo (N. biflora) have a more southern distribution and the common name "tupelo" is used more widely in the South. In the North the species is usually referred to as the blackgum, although it is not particularly gummy. It is not related to the sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), which does have a gummy aromatic resin. The two trees do not resemble each other except in one interesting detail: the mature specimens of both species have scaly bark that resembles alligator skin.

A beetlebungThe Martha's Vineyard name — and it does seem to be unique to the island — refers to two uses of the wood. Wooden mallets are called "beetles" and the plugs that stop holes in barrels are called "bungs." The wood of N. sylvatica is not particularly strong and doesn't have a lot of practical uses, but the fibers of cellulose in this species are densely interwoven, making it very difficult to split (it resembles the wood of American elm in this respect). For this reason it is quite well suited for making the heads of mallets (as well as the handles of tools that see hard use) and for making the wooden stoppers that seal up barrels.

One source noted that the shift from a primarily agragrian economy to one based on whaling led to the need for barrels in which to ship whale oil. The consequent growth in the cooperage industry must have led to discovery by experiment of the best woods to make the barrels (I don't know what species that was) as wells as the bungs that closed them up after they were filled with whale oil.

Open grown black tupeloN. sylvatica is common on Martha Vineyard today albeit more locally than the various species of oaks that represent the dominant canopy tree on much of the island. It tends to grow in stands, which can often be a sign of clonal reproduction, but not in this case. Blackgum is actually noted as one of the most long-lived non-clonal tree species in the eastern United States, capable of reaching the age of 650 years. It is also noteworthy for having a large taproot, which makes it an uncommon nursery tree, although its fall foliage, which varies through the season from a deep maroon to a bright orange, make it prized as a landscape specimen.

When you see stands of beetlebung growing in clumps on Martha's Vineyard, they do have a bit of a storybook- illustration quality to them. The trunks tend to be quite straight, although when they are in close proximity they tend to lean away from each other, and the main branches stick out from the trunk horizontally and are often closely ranked. This peculiar and distinctive geometry is most obvious in the winter, but even when the leaves are on, it gives a beetlebung copse a texture distinctive from the more fractal look of oak canopies.

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