“Back Home Again in Indiana,” a song familiar to Hoosiers, composed by Rensselaer native James F. Hanley with lyrics by Ballard MacDonald, takes us back to “scenes that we hold dear.”
Fields to roam, new-mown hay, moonlight, and sycamores are a few of the memories we recall.
A sycamore tree that “casts a spell o’er me” is located along the east bank of the Iroquois River, easily seen from the Washington Street bridge in Rensselaer within sight of a historic marker honoring Hanley. The tree stands 115 feet tall. Towering above the city reaching for the summer sky, the sycamore has striking, exfoliating bark that exposes layers of brown, green, and white bark in a zigzag pattern.
The American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is native in thirty-five states including Indiana. It is a massive tree that can attain the largest trunk diameter of any eastern United States hardwood. The bark is the most striking feature. The whitest sycamore bark is in the tree’s upper branches illuminated by winter light where the bark has popped off in patches. The leaves, which are broader than longer and frequently ten inches wide, drop slowly throughout the winter. When the leaves do start to drop, they do not fall quickly like other trees. Instead, the bulk of leaves refuse to drop until the coldest months arrive, December and well into February.
The fruits of the sycamore are round, inch-size brown seed clusters at the end of a drooping stem. Each seed has a plume of hairs for wind dispersal. Early pioneers called sycamores buttonwoods because of the button-like seed balls. When the tree is between 50 and 200 years, the most fruit is produced.
How can we determine the age of the sycamore on the banks of the Iroquois River? Using a simple method, a tree’s age can be estimated without knowing when the tree was planted.
According to Lindsey Purcell, Urban Forestry Specialist (Purdue University) April 10, 2018, Issue: 18-04, The Purdue Landscape Report:
“Step 1. Measure the circumference © of the tree trunk using a measuring tape that measures in feet and inches. This should be done at 4.5 feet above the ground or slightly below shoulder height. This is known to arborist as DBH or Diameter at Breast Height.
“Step 2. Calculate the diameter (d). Divide the circumference by 3.14, a constant known as ‘pi.’
“Step 3. Multiply the diameter of the tree by the growth factor as determined by species. The circumference of the sycamore is 160 inches. The growth factor is 4.0. The tree is estimated to be 203.8 years old.”
By using the estimated age, the time when the sycamore tree was a sapling can be determined by subtracting from the present year. (Minnesota Project Learning Tree). Using this method, the sycamore began growing in 1820 before Rensselaer was a city.
RUFC inventory of trees shows there are 30 American sycamore trees scattered throughout the city. Five are located along the south side of Washington Street adjacent to Milroy Park just before the bridge. The estimated ages range from 118.5 to 137.6 years.
The Jasper County Courthouse square boasts two significance sycamore trees. The largest on the south side is estimated at 186 years and on the west side, 136.3 years.
The largest American sycamore tree in Indiana can be found in Johnson County with a circumference of 312.8 (Indiana Big Tree Register 2015) with an estimated age of 398.4 years.
The American sycamore is a remarkable tree, a gift of nature lasting through generations displaying its beauty within our community. Perhaps, when you walk or drive over the Washington Street bridge you will be inspired by the magnificence. It would be interesting to know if this is the oldest tree of any species in our community. Please message Facebook: Rensselaer Urban Forestry Council any tree you estimate to be older than the sycamore on the Iroquois River.
RENSSELAER URBAN FORESTRY COUNCIL
Rensselaer Urban Forestry Council is inspired by the trees of our community and dedicated to the promotion of their health through public awareness, education and plantings.