Young Black Gum Trees Planted in Historically Significant Black Wall Street Gardens

By Wendy Diaz EMGV

Fall is the season when nature displays its brilliant colors and thanks to trees planted recently in the Black Wall Street Gardens, we should see more of that fall splendor in the coming years right in downtown Durham. Black Wall Street Gardens is a small but centrally located green space that was improved in 2018 as part of the 2014 Downtown Open Space Plan that intended to further develop the former park located at 102 West Main Street into the ‘southern node of an enhanced linear park connecting City Hall to Main Street’.1 The improvements included the planting of four small Black Gum trees alongside a new curvilinear path and larger brick pavement center area with tables and chairs for seating. A public art piece to ‘commemorate and illuminate the importance of Black Wall Street and the legacy of Durham’s African-American business community’2, will be located at this location in the near future.

Foreground: Newly planted Black Gum tree near pathway in Black Street Gardens. Background: The recently completed One City Centre, tallest building in Durham.
Photo by Wendy Diaz on October 24, 2019

Black Gum or Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)

Black Gum, also commonly known as Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) is a slow-growing tree species native to Eastern North America and a deciduous hardwood tree recognized for its brilliant display of red and almost purple colored leaves in November. The spring flowers are small and produce excellent nectar for bees3. It is dioecious as the female tree needs a male pollinator tree to set their dark-blue fruit. The tree prefers acidic soils, has long taproots, tolerates poorly drained soils so it can be used in rain gardens and endures droughts due to its deep root system4. The Black Gum typically grows from 30 to 50 feet tall with a crown spread of 20 to 30 feet. They can live to be very old and some live more than 600 years.

Deep red fall color of leaf of newly planted Black Gum. Photo by Wendy Diaz on November 13, 2019

The pyramidal growth habit along with a centralized leader and the Black Gum’s ability to tolerate compacted soils are all desirable attributes for the urban environment.5 One undesirable attribute for an urban walkway is the fruit litter of the female trees unless plant cultivars such as Nyssa sylvatica ‘Firestarter’ or Nyssa sylvatica ‘Red Rage’ are planted which do not produce fruit5. Another quality of this tree is the strong connection between its smaller branches and the trunk (branches grow at wide angles horizontally along the trunk) requiring less pruning and maintenance and making it a good candidate for wind tunnels between high buildings in the city.

Crimson color of leaf on new Black Gum Tree in Black Wall Street Gardens. Photo by Wendy Diaz on October 24, 2019

Black Gum trees are perhaps best known for their brilliant scarlet fall color display in North Carolina. Only a couple of leaves have turned red on the newly planted trees in the Black Wall Street Gardens this week and the waxy green summer leaves predominate.

Fortunately, not far from downtown on North Broad Street is a grand old blazing specimen in the backyard of a home in Old West Durham neighborhood and a subject of a previous Master Gardener blog post6.  

Looking north along west side of Broad Street at brilliant fall color of mature Black Gum tree.
Photo by Wendy Diaz on November 13, 2019
Mature Black Gum tree on Broad Street. Photo by Wendy Diaz on November 13, 2019

Its fall foliage is a little past its prime in mid-November but one can still see some very bright crimson and scarlet leaves this week and maybe even into December.  This brilliant display is something to look forward to in the coming years for downtown.

Late fall color of crown of Broad Street Black Gum tree. Photo by Wendy Diaz on November 13, 2019
Closeup of brilliant crimson color of fall mature Black Gum tree on Broad Street. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on November 13, 2019

Black Wall Street 

Historical plaque commemorating Black Wall Street on the northwest corner of North Magnum Street and Parrish Street Photo by Wendy Diaz November 13, 2019

The four young Black Tupelo trees are located near the north end of the garden park close to West Parrish Street or Black Wall Street. Black Wall Street referred to an area ‘of concentrated African-American wealth, economic and political power’ along the north side of Parrish Street in downtown Durham during the first half of the 20th century. In the early 1900’s, West Parrish Street started to convert from light industrial to commercial use when the black-owned and operated North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association (later renamed the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company) purchased several lots along the north side of this street.9 After the insurance company’s construction of its first office building in 1905, the street soon became known as “Black Wall Street.10  This two-story brick building, also housed the Mechanics and Farmers Bank on its first floor. By around 1910, the entire north side of the block was a black business complex of two- and three- story brick buildings11 . At the start of the 20th century as many as 200 businesses including groceries, shoe stores, banks and insurance companies comprised this interconnected business sector. Scholars Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois nationally acclaimed the street as an exceptionally prosperous black middle class business sector. Perhaps the most well known black-owned businesses were the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. and Mechanics & Farmers Bank8 at 106 West Parrish Street, located around the north corner from Black Street Gardens. After urban renewal projects and desegregation, black-owned businesses no longer concentrated downtown.

Looking southwest from the northeast corner of West Parrish Street and North Magnum Street at the former buildings on the site of Black Wall Street Gardens in 1963. Photo courtesy of OpenDurham.
Looking from the same corner of the above 1963 photograph at the north end of Black Wall Street Gardens. Two young Black Gum trees are circled. Photo by Wendy Diaz on November 13, 2019

On the south side of Parrish Street, a  commemorative sculpture is located near the north entrance of the Black Wall Street Gardens and the former site of a two story building built between 1910 to 1915 and demolished between 1968 and 1973 and formally housed a shoe store, Jewelry store, Tailor and Loan company11.  

Sculpture dedicated to the ambitions of the African-American business community on Black Wall Street (West Parrish Street) located at north entrance to Black Wall Street Gardens. Arrow points to young Black Gum tree. Photo by Wendy Diaz on October 24, 2019

Prior to 1970 and the construction of the Durham Freeway, Parrish Street businesses actually connected all the way to Fayetteville Street to the Hayti Neighborhood. ‘Urban Renewal’ displaced more than 4,000 families and 500 businesses, and the freeway cut off Hayti from what’s now considered downtown Durham12. Leaders in the community are trying to reconnect Hayti community to Black Wall Street by planning a safe walking route along Fayetteville Street to the Black Wall Street Gardens for Hayti residents.

Angier Corner

The northwest corner of West Main Street and North Magnum Street was known as Angier Corner long before it became the south part of Black Wall Street Gardens. The first mercantile store built in Durham was located here and operated by M.A. Angier and the store and corner became known as Angier’s General Store and Angier’s Corner, respectively13

Looking at the northwest corner of West Main Street and Mangum Street in 1884. Angier’s General Store is the wood frame structure on the right and Morehead Bank is the small building to the left. Note the large brick building in the background (north side of Black Wall Street Gardens) and the wagons parked in between the buildings. The two large deciduous trees in the foreground do not look healthy. Photograph courtesy of Durham County Library
Looking northwest from the sidewalk along the south side of Black Wall Street Gardens and several yards to the west of where the figures are standing in the historical photograph above. Photo by Wendy Diaz October 24, 2019

Brick buildings replaced the wood frame structures in the 1890’s. In 1899, 102 West Main was occupied by the Haywood King drugstore. In 1906, King sold his interest in the drugstore to D. L. Boone, and the drugstore became Haywood-Boone. In 1937, Haywood and Boone sold this store to Walgreens. Walgreens operated here throughout the mid-20th century. John Schelp a local historian, who interviewed John Loudermilk, said this was the store where Loudermilk picked up a candy bar (for his East Durham girlfriend) and flowers were on sale and inspired him to write the song “A Rose and a Baby Ruth” in 195612. These buildings were demolished around 1970 by the city as part of the Federal Urban Renewal program as they were vacant for some time and the area was developed into a park. 

What a better way to commemorate and beautify such an important and central part of Durham’s commercial legacy of its diverse communities’ industriousness than the planting of such beautiful long-lived trees and the promise of fall color in a park dedicated to black entrepreneurship during the Jim Crow Era.



More on Black Wall Street:

Ode to the Red Maple (Acer rubrum)

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

Maple trees are among the most popular shade trees in America. They grow fast and tall, averaging 40 feet but capable of reaching 120 feet. I remember the one in the backyard of my childhood home on Long Island. We lived in a suburban development typical of its time: Finished in the late 1960s, the homes were similar in size and layout and every house sat on the same amount of land which was some measure of an acre. The community was called Point of Woods – which was humorous as most of the “woods” were cleared in order to build the houses. Most homes were surrounded by large areas of lawn. The yard cried out for a shade tree. Enter the maple.

Our maple tree felt special. My grandmother spotted the seedling growing in her tiny urban yard in Queens, a borough of New York City. Mature maples lined her two-way street; they were so large that their tops completely shaded the street and their shallow roots buckled the sidewalks. Grandma was no stranger to gardening so she nurtured that seedling for a bit and then potted it up and brought it to Long Island to plant in our new backyard. With lots of attention, but little actual care, it grew fast and tall and quickly delivered welcome shade.

Alas, I have no (good) photo to share of the maple of my youth. Besides, my tree may have been the invasive (!) Norway maple (Acer platanoides) which was widely planted as a street and shade tree back in the day. I have something much better to share with you — a spectacular red maple tree that has, for years, graced the Durham County, NC yard of a fellow master gardener.

Red maple trees are native deciduous trees. They tolerate a wide range of growing conditions which may be why they seem to grow carefree. It is one of the first native trees to flower in very early spring and there is something red about it year-round. It has red twigs, buds, and flowers in winter, reddish new leaves in spring, red leaf stalks and seeds in summer, and reddish (or yellow) foliage in autumn. 1   

There are a number of types of maple trees and it is not easy to identify them from afar. You need to observe their structure and then get close enough to observe the bark, the leaves and their arrangement, the flower and/or the fruit. A distinguishing characteristic of the red maple (in addition to its overwhelming redness as described above), is that the edge of its leaf, also known as the margin, is highly serrated.

To learn more about the characteristics of other maple trees, consult the NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox online.  

Photos by Wanda Cruthfield, used with permission.


1. Spira, Timothy P., Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont, 2011 University of North Carolina Press

Additional Resources & Further Reading

NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox
Also take note of the list of maples often confused with the red maple

Maple Tree ID – especially as it pertains to trees tapped for syrup

Beware the Norway maple – it is an invasive species!

Maple spider mites could be a concern


by Bob Shaw, EMGV

Japanese beetles have emerged in Durham County. We have been picking them from our orchard trees at Briggs Avenue Community Garden since the start of June. This time of year takes me back 40 years to our first house out in Orange County sitting in a large yard, but surrounded by woods. On an early June morning, as the sun warmed the ground, I watched in dismay as clouds of beetles rose from the turf. For the next years, I warred against them — inoculating my lawn with milky spore bacteria (then available only from the county extension agent) and with traps. More about traps later. Each afternoon, I’d come home from work and empty a full gallon of beetles from my traps into a bucket of soapy water. Over the years, I accumulated a large pile (not quite a mountain) of beetle husks. Eventually, I controlled them and my apple trees no longer had all their leaves turned to brown lacework, no longer were my peaches gnawed to brown, nasty pulp.

Japanese beetles on an apple tree.
Photo by Bob Shaw

At Briggs, we don’t have a plague and we manage them with an old plastic container of soapy water. In the cool morning, when they are still lethargic, one holds the container beneath the beetles’ leaf and, obligingly, they drop into it; this works best at 70 degrees or lower. As the temperature rises they are more active and are likely to fly as you approach. Collecting one is very satisfying, even more when a pair is caught in flagrante delicto or, even three or more, when onlookers are present.

We find beetles on, and eating leaves of, roses, apples, peaches and persimmons in the community garden. A few beetles are on our figs, but they haven’t eaten the leaves. Likely the broad, flat, green leaves provide a nice landing zone. But as the population grows, they range more widely: into mint and blackberries.

About traps:  As described above, I used them many years ago and traps saved us. If beetles are a plague, as they were with me, collection in cups of soapy water may not seem practical. However, be aware that beetles must be emptied from the traps every day or two to prevent them from rotting and releasing ammonia which is repellent to other Japanese beetles. Traps also can attract beetles from your neighbor’s yard, increasing the population in your yard. So what? – We want to be good neighbors, don’t we?

Sources & Further Reading

Coping During Japanese Beetle Season

Durhamites It’s Time to Nominate Your Favorite Tree In Praise of the Eastern Redbud (Cercis Canadensis)

By Wendy Diaz EMGV

What a beautiful spring it turned out to be after that wet winter, and our native understory trees make the North Carolina spring that much more special. Durham’s Finest Trees is accepting nominations now through October 1 for the best examples of specific tree species in our county. The spring blooming trifecta of smaller trees like the Eastern Redbud (Cercis Canadensis), Dogwood (Cornus florida) and Fringe trees (Chionanthus virginicus) are also eligible, not just our magnificent giants like the willow oak or tulip poplar. 

Eastern Redbud in full bloom. March 28, 2019 Photo by Wendy Diaz
Dogwood. April 13, 2019 Photo by Wendy Diaz

Fringe tree in full bloom on April 24, 2019. Photo by Wendy Diaz

Eastern Redbud

First to appear around early March along the margins of our leafless woodlands, as puffs of pink to light-purple color, is the Eastern Redbud. This tree is often multi-trunked with a rounded crown that typically grows to 10 to 25 feet with a similar spread1, 2. The showy pea-like flowers bloom on bare branches before the tree leafs out.  

Showy pink flowers on the branches of cultivated variety of Eastern Redbud attract honey bees. Photo by Wendy Diaz on March 28, 2019

After flowering, flat bean-like seedpods emerge containing six to 12 seeds. The heart-shaped to broadly ovate leaves are short pointed at the tip and are also attractive. The leaves turn yellow in the fall. The Eastern Redbud does well in full sun to partial shade. The benefits to wildlife are threefold as the blossoms provide nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies (Henry’s elfin butterfly Callophyrus henrici)3, the tree hosts its larvae4and the seedpods provide food for songbirds. Honeybees also use the flowers for pollen.

Native Estern Redbud self-seed in natural buffer area of our backyard. Photo taken April 4, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Closeup of self-seeded native Redbud in my backyard. Notice bee in upper left hand corner. Photo taken April 4, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Many cultivars of Redbud are sold at your local nursery such as the cultivar ‘Forest Pansy’ with purple leaves. One of the most extensive collections of redbuds in North America is found at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh5.  Redbuds do best in moderate to dry soil conditions and tolerate clay soil. Protect their sensitive roots with a wide mulch apron. A new sterile (does not produce seed pods after blooming) variety developed by Dr. Dennis Werner at North Carolina State University called ‘Pink Pom Poms’ has beautiful double pink flowers6. It has Texas redbud genes so it tolerates heat, which is an important consideration due to our rapidly changing climate.

If you remember seeing a beautiful Redbud or any other impressive tree why not fill out the two page Nomination Form. Information on how to estimate the tree size is given on this webpage or the following link







6.  Triangle Gardener March-April 2019,  Beverly Hurley editor,  page 17

Leyland Cypress: And then there were (almost) none

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

The growth of three cypress at the far end of this photo seem stunted and just one large one, not pictured, remains. photo credit: Andrea Laine

Once upon a time, there were 10 Leyland cypress trees (x Cupressocyparis leylandii) along this fence (see photo). They were planted about 15 years ago and most had matured to 15-feet tall and a few feet wide. Sadly, three fell in a winter ice storm in 2013. And three more were blown over a few weeks ago in a 12 mph south wind following a very soggy December in Durham county. This loss is disheartening – especially as there are cypress hedges in landscapes throughout the area that seem to be doing just fine as my husband curiously noted.

Because Leyland cypress is a fast-growing, dense evergreen, they are attractive to homeowners and often used in landscaping as privacy screens. Indeed, the ones in my yard served that purpose; they were a natural buffer, so the view from my deck was of year-round greenery instead of my neighbor’s driveway and dog pen.

But what often goes unsaid is that fast-growing trees and shrubs tend to be weak and short lived (5).  As a master gardener, I’ve learned that the Leyland cypress, while popular, is not a well-regarded ornamental shrub. Though mine seemed to be healthy, the species is plagued by a variety of diseases and pest problems (6). Truth be told, I rarely observed them up close; they could have been suffering and I was unaware.

Hedging Options
Here are some shrubs we are considering to replace the fallen cypress, the general criteria being shrubs that are evergreen, grow tall and wide, are dense, grow well in sun to part shade, and enjoy well-drained soil. All the better if they offer some additional feature like fragrance or flowers. And, of course, they must grow in hardiness zone 7.

(1)  Chindo viburnum (Viburnum awabuki ‘chindo’)

(2)  Sweet osmanthus/Fragrant tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans)

(3)  Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria Japonica)

(4)  Nellie Stevens Holly (Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens)

Not all plants will do well in all places. If you also desire an evergreen hedge, follow the links to NC Extension’s  Plant Database provided in the Resources section below to learn what these plants need and then consider if your yard can deliver the right combination of sun, soil and space conditions.

There are also non-shrub options for solving landscape challenges like this one. You can train an evergreen vine to climb the fence, install a solid fence, or screen the deck instead of the property line.

Resources and Further Reading: