Beetlebung - Only on the Vineyard
Published: September 28, 2012
Martha's Vineyard has its own language, spoken by native Islanders and "washashores" alike. When we leave our island home, we speak of going to America; when we are in need of something inexpensive we shop at the "dumptique"; and when we enjoy the spectacular fall foliage display of the black tupelo tree, we call it a "beetlebung."
The Latin name for the beetlebung tree is Nyssa sylvatica, which means "water nymph of the woods." It thrives in moist woodlands across eastern North America, growing up to 50 feet tall.
The mature bark of the beetlebung tree looks like rows of flat- topped, medium gray blocks with deep crevices between. It's sour, dark blue berries are an important food source for migratory birds in fall. The hollow trunks of beetlebung trees provide habitat for cavity nesters.
However, it is the usefulness of the beetlebung tree to 19th century Vineyarders that earned it its local name. Take apart the word to reveal its roots. ‘Beetle’ doesn’t refer to the insect, in fact, it describes a simple hammer, or mallet. ‘Bung’ refers to corks, both of which were made using the hard wood of this tree.
Thus, there is need to hold your tongue when speaking of this valued tree. Enjoy its beautiful fall foliage and once the leaves are down, its lovely leafless form, dancer-like in its shape.