Streamside Sentinel

Little Calumet River in LaPorte County, Indiana
Little Calumet River in LaPorte County, Indiana

Immortalized in popular song, the sycamore occupies a special place on the Indiana panorama.

American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)
American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)

The American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is one of the tallest trees (up to 150 feet) on the Hoosier landscape, and it sometimes exhibits a circumference so large that its hollow stumps once served as dwellings and outbuildings on early-settler farms. The tree’s range extends throughout the eastern United States from southern Canada to the gulf coast and includes every county in Indiana. Sycamores flourish in floodplain forest and river bottomlands. In their natural setting, they almost already exist along bodies of water.

Beyond their sheer size, the trees are easily distinguishable from other waterside denizens by their unique bark. Thin brown scales on older sycamores flake off to produce a pattern of yellow, tan, and green splotches that resembles military camouflage. It’s not unusual to find trees with upper branches bare of bark and almost completely white. In the leafless winter woods, they sometimes glow like ghostly sentinels in the low light of the setting afternoon sun. The leaves are maple-like in shape but broader and lacking the vivid fall color.

Back Home Again in Indiana sheet music
“Back Home Again in Indiana” sheet music

The sycamore features notably in the lyrics of Indiana’s state song: “Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming on the banks of the Wabash, far away.” Written by Paul Dresser in 1897 and sanctioned as the state’s anthem in 1913, On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away was a major international hit around the turn of the 20th century, when a song’s popularity was determined by sheet music sales.

Not long afterwards, another song, Back Home Again in Indiana, borrowed the sycamore references and became even more fashionable as a jazz standard favored by the legendary Louis Armstrong. The song remains familiar today, playing a key role in the opening ceremony of the annual Indianapolis 500, thereby sending its Hoosier sycamore theme to a huge worldwide audience of auto racing fans.

While the sycamore is a common species in our area, it is not the most abundant tree in our woodlands. Focus your search on the riparian habitat it prefers. They may also be found in parks and on city streets where they have been planted ornamentally or as shade trees.

Fine examples of the tree can be found near the headwaters of the Little Calumet River in LaPorte County and along tributaries flowing into that waterway. Much of this area comprises the Little Calumet Conservation Area, a major restoration project area for Shirley Heinze Land Trust and its land-preservation partners.

— Ron Trigg, May 2022

Ron Trigg is a past Executive Director and former board member of Shirley Heinze Land Trust. An author, photographer, and naturalist, he volunteers his photography and wordsmithing skills.