Seeking refuge from sweltering summer heat in the deep shade of the Fork one cannot miss the eastern sycamore (Platanus occidentalis). In all of the eastern forest the sycamore tree may be the easiest to identify. It is the largest tree in the east and has a number of important distinctions. In Floyds Fork the sycamore grows close to the stream, its exposed roots form a woven net holding the bank in place. These are the bones of the river.
The bark of the sycamore is its most obvious characteristic. Except for the oldest bark near the base of the tree, sycamore bark is whitish. Flakes and mottled patches of gray, brown, and green give it a camouflage appearance. Upper, whiter bark photosynthesizes, like the leaves of all plants, allowing sycamores to grow in the short warm window before leaf-out.
There are about ten species of sycamore in the world; all are grouped in the Platanaceae family. Only one species of sycamore occurs in the eastern United States and two in the west. Like other eastern species, our sycamore also grows in the mountains of northern Mexico. Western and Southeast Asia have additional species of sycamore. It is an older group of plants; fossils date back to the Cretaceous—80 million years ago. During those warmer periods of earth’s history, sycamore made up a large portion of forests on Greenland and the Arctic.
Today eastern sycamore finds its place in the southeast quadrant of North America. It ranges from southern Maine, to Nebraska, south to Texas and east to Florida. Within this broad range however, it grows in somewhat specific conditions.
Sycamore is generally found in two locations: along the banks of rivers and streams and occasionally in abandoned fields. As a stream tree sycamore takes on its largest and best form. It has the largest girth in the east, having reached diameters of over 15 feet. Stories from early settlers tell of entire families living in the bases of hollow trees until they had their cabins or farm houses built.
In Floyds Fork the largest sycamore reaches six to seven feet in diameter. Other behemoths occur in Pope Lick Park with several trees well over four feet in diameter. This size sycamore is relatively common in the parks. Their form is spreading, with many large branches. The bases are generally hollow. For these reasons the tree rarely makes a good timber species.
Despite its poor quality as a timber tree, people have used sycamore for a variety of purposes. Native Americans often used the pre-hollowed trunks for canoes. Settlers used the hollow trees for tubs, basins, cisterns and more. Even wagon wheels were made of the wide ring of wood.
Young sycamores can be found in habitats around the Fork. As mentioned, the species often grows in old fields; a stand of dense poles grows at the King property. Young trees also grow on streamside gravel bars, places subject to powerful floods. The trees often grow horizontally from being flattened by repeated floods. But if they hold on, they encourage sediment to accumulate, in effect raising the gravel bar up out of the floodway. Few species can claim such ability. This begins the root system that will later become the bones of the river.