Probably the easiest feature to identify larger blackgum trees is the bark, which is dark gray to black, and blocky. The leaves are roughly egg shaped, smooth edged, and have a broad point on the end. The leaf is broadest at the top of the blade. Branches are often at a 90-degree angle to the trunk, and the smallest twigs tend to bend backward towards the trunk. The fruit is a blue-black berry that hangs from a long stem in twos and threes.
In the woods, blackgum is moderately tolerant to shade, and is often found growing below the main tree canopy. But it can also reach into the canopy and becomes a large tree. Only occasionally found in pure stands, it is most often a scattered in mixture with almost every forest type.
Blackgum is not an important timber tree, having poor form and a cross-grain, making it very difficult to split for firewood. It can be used as pulpwood and rough lumber for crate and pallet material. It is very susceptible to wildfire and mechanical injury, which allows a decay fungus to enter and hollow out the center of the trunk.
Many species of wildlife consume the berries when they ripen in the fall. Turkey, wood duck, robin, and several other bird species utilize the fruit, as well as black bear and foxes Deer and beaver feed on the twigs and buds. The tree is a good honey plant, producing abundant nectar. And since the tree is prone to be hollow, it provides shelters and dens for a number of wildlife species.
In pioneer times hollow blackgums were cut to short lengths and made into beehives, hence the name bee gum. While avoiding it for firewood, farmers did use the wood for handles and rough lumber.
Blackgum is a gorgeous ornamental if given plenty of room. It is attractive at all times of year, but especially in the fall, when it is produces brilliant red foliage.