Death of a Sycamore Tree

For a very long time a giant American sycamore tree lived just south of Hopkins Hall at the heart of the Ohio State University campus. The National Arborist Association certified the tree as having been alive at the time of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787; a bronze plaque installed near the tree’s base reminded passersby of the designation. Today, the long life of the so-called “Constitution Tree” ended.

Sycamore leaf.

Having stood for more than a quarter of a millennium, this sycamore was a true witness tree. It was surely home to countless generations of squirrels, birds, and insects through its long life and well loved by humans, too. When Native Americans walked the banks of the Olentangy River (Keenhongsheconsepung as they called it), gathering flint, the tree must have been just another sycamore among an expansive forest of hardwoods. The tree stood silently as hundreds of slaves slipped by its outstretched branches following a nearby Underground Railroad path to freedom. Its bright green leaves might have felt the heat from the flames that consumed the nineteenth-century Armory building, a few hundred feet to the east, on a June day in 1958. Ohio State’s Constitution Tree lived with the students of every class since the first graduated in 1878.

Earlier this summer, the tree lost a massive limb in a storm, an event that must have spurred a closer look at its health. It bore evidence of earlier substantial pruning and, to my untrained eye, did not look like a very healthy tree. Undoubtedly, the concrete sidewalks surrounding the sycamore on all sides and extending almost to the drip line accelerated the tree’s demise. That said, whoever is in charge of caring for the trees at Ohio State University has a very big job and does it well. I am sure the decision to remove the Constitution Tree was not taken lightly.

Donald Culross Peattie, the most prolific nature writer of the twentieth century, wrote of the American sycamore in A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America. “By the beautiful bright smooth bark, the sycamore is known as far off as the color can be descried; it shines through the tops of the forest even in the depth of summer when the leafy crowns are heaviest. In winter, against a stormy sky, it looks wonderfully living amidst all the appearances of lifelessness in other deciduous trees.” Indeed, Platanus occidentalis is a constant companion of the forest here.

I am grateful that I was able to know this tree for a small part of its life, for the shade it gave me at lunchtime on a few hot days, and for giving me food for thought every time I passed it. That something so large and of such old age can be felled by three men in a matter of hours leaves me in a contemplative mood. Members of the Ohio State University class of 2020 will descend upon campus a few short weeks from now and almost none of them will know that a majestic sycamore tree once reigned over a small corner of their new home. But other trees abound here and I know that somewhere another sycamore sapling pushes its roots into the earth and stretches toward the sun.

My thanks to the anonymous arborist from Russell Tree Experts who allowed me to interrupt his work, answered my questions, and indulged my request for an offcut that was destined for the chipper.