Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Hollow Sycamore Trees

Bonnecamp's cottonwood


Dennis showed me an ad on the back of one of his history magazines. A print of a painting, "We Dined In A Hollow Cottonwood Tree," is being sold. The artist is Robert Griffing, and the firm offering the print is Paramount Press, Inc.

The painting shows three huge canoes pulled up to the bank of a river under an enormous tree. The tree has an opening on its trunk and two people are standing just inside it. They are dwarfed by the tree.

In the text of the ad, it tells a bit about the historic event that the painting portrays. A Jesuit, Father Joseph-Pierre de Bonnecamps was traveling with a group of French soldiers, Canadians, and Indians down the Ohio River. Father Bonnecamps wrote in his journal that they had dined inside a hollow cottonwood tree that was large enough to arrange 29 men inside it. The area that he saw this tree is believed to be near present day Pittsburg.

Dennis and I were puzzled that a cottonwood could possibly grow to such tremendous size since their lifespan is quite short, at most 125 years or so. I decided to do a little research on the subject, and it turns out that Father B. was describing the tree that we call the American sycamore.

Here is the relevant portion of Father Bonnecamp's journal entry for the day. I think the first tree he describes might be a honeylocust, and the second one is the big sycamore:

One of our officers showed me a bean-tree. This is a tree of medium size whose trunk and branches are armed with thorns three or four inches long,and two or three lines thick at the base. The interior of these thorns is filled with pulp. The fruit is a sort of little bean, enclosed in a pod about a foot long,an inch wide, and of a reddish color somewhat mingled with green. There are five or six beans in each pod.

The same day, we dined in a hollow cottonwood tree, in which 29 men could be ranged side by side. This tree is not rare in those regions; it grows on the river-banks and in marshy places. It attains a great height and has many branches. Its bark is seamed and rough like shagreen. The wood is hard, brittle, and apt to decay; I do not believe that I have seen two of these trees that were not hollow...

Source: Bonnecamp's journals, at the Ohio Historical Society's website.

A hollow sycamore that could hold 29 men makes more sense, though that's quite a crowd. Sycamores have enough lifespan (often 350 years and sometimes much longer) to grow very large in favorable circumstances. Early American history records many instances where people lived in hollow sycamore trees until they built a cabin.

Dennis told me of another sycamore he has read about -- it's hollow was so large that two brothers lived comfortably inside it for several years. One brother slept upstairs and one slept downstairs!

Most sycamores over 100 years old are hollow inside. Wood ducks, opossums, and raccoons often nest in the hollow, live tree trunks. As Donald Peattie writes in his 1950 A Natural History of Trees (319) that "...pioneers often stabled a horse, cow, or pig in a hollow Sycamore, and sometimes a whole family took shelter in such an hospitable giant, until the log cabin could be raised."

Source: Sycamores at Wellesley Web of Species

Those pioneers who saw the huge hollow sycamores of the primeval forests wouldn't be impressed by this rather small hollow sycamore that we saw at Cumberland Falls in eastern Kentucky (photo below -- I asked permission of the children's mother to take their picture but I didn't get a release to post their photo online. That's why I have blurred their sweet little faces.)

A search for the exact words, "in a hollow sycamore" returns many interesting accounts of people and other creatures taking shelter in sycamore tree cavities.



Hollow sycamore at Cumberland Falls
Hollow sycamore at Cumberland Falls State Park, KY

Related post: Sycamores: Big Trees with White Branches

3 comments -- please add yours:

drb said...

Found your site while looking for a nice link about cottonwoods for my drawing site.

I look forward to looking through all the interesting info here.

Genevieve said...

Thanks for visiting, drb. I enjoyed looking at the artwork in your blog, and I decided to add you to my link list as a "Friend of Nature".

Darren said...

There are some good sized Sycamore trees at Yellow Creek park in Poland, Ohio. I suspect that Bonnecamp's decription, and Griffings painting, might have been a little exaggerated, but who knows. I love Griffings work, I've actually met the man and told him so. I live near Pittsburgh.

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Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

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Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

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