JEROMESVILLE, Ohio — Sparse leaves on outstretched branches provide scant shade for the tall grass below. Sunlight beams down through sporadic patches of green like a kaleidoscope.
About 50 feet away, a tributary to the Jerome Fork of the Mohican River slowly winds through farmland, separating the tree from adjacent fields of crops. Birdsong provides nature’s background music.
Large, bulbous burls covering scars of trauma adorn the trunk of this wilderness sentinel. The gnarled trunk of this massive American sycamore, which is at least two centuries old, measures 436 inches in circumference, and the tree stands 88 feet tall. A portion of the trunk is hollow — a cavity measuring more than 8 feet tall.
“These big trees, you don’t see a whole lot of them. So when you do, you really appreciate them. You want to document them,” said Alistair Reynolds, a forester for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources who coordinates the Ohio Big Tree Program. “There’s also a scientific component here, too. We try to maintain a database of the largest trees.”
The program tracks the largest trees in the state by species and uses measurements of the tree’s crown spread, its height and circumference to assign each tree a score. Reynolds visits trees nominated by the public, and he uses a tape measure, laser rangefinder/hypsometer, which measures height, and a Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) device, which uses a pulsed laser to take other measurements.
Other states have similar programs. American Forests, a nonprofit group dedicated to reforestation, has a list of “champion” trees across the country and uses the data to declare national record holders. Researchers can look at the numbers kept by states to determine how large some species of trees will grow.
This tree has four major stems, like secondary trunks, forking up from the main trunk, although only three are counted when it comes to competitions against other trees because one stem is below a 4 1/2-foot minimum height mark used in judging. (That means some judges would consider one of the stems a separate tree.) Smaller offshoots have branched off of the massive trunk but now have dropped leaves. The total score of the tree is 547 — making it the largest tree on record in the state.
The tree is now in the process of dying. There is no way to know exactly how old it is — especially with the hollow trunk. Reynolds estimates that because of its size, it easily predates Ohio’s statehood in 1803.
It’s also the largest American sycamore in the country.
“Not only is it the biggest tree, it’s probably the hollowest tree” in Ohio, Reynolds said.
Anthracnose fungus has caused witches broom patterns on twigs and made healthy leaves scarce. A fungus also left the gaping hole in the trunk.
“If the rate of decay exceeds the growth rate, then it’s going to have some challenges,” Reynolds said. “As high as the rot grows up the stem, it’s likely to fail.”