American Sycamore

January 5th, 2021

Platanus occidentalis

Along the rivers and streams in Southeast Tennessee, there is one tree that stands out from the rest. In a winter world of brown and gray, the sycamore tree’s bright white bark is a stark contrast to its surroundings. This trait is why the sycamore is sometimes called "ghost tree." Its color isn't the only thing that makes it stand out, either. The American sycamore can grow to reach over 170 feet tall and over 10 feet in diameter, making it one of the largest trees found in our riparian forests.  


The most commonly used characteristic for identifying the American sycamore is its bark. As the tree matures, it develops brownish-gray flaky bark that extends up for approximately 30 feet. This bark often breaks off into large and uneven chunks. From about 30 feet up until the top of the tree, the mature sycamores have white bark. Younger trees can have white bark starting at ground level. As the tree matures, it forms a hollow trunk.

American sycamores also have large and easily identifiable leaves. These palmate and serrate leaves can regularly reach 10 inches long and wide.

Sycamore trees also produce a fruit that hangs from the branches. As the fruit matures, white fluffy seeds — very similar to those produced by dandelions — are exposed and dispersed by wind.


The American sycamore has a huge range, but is primarily found along permanent bodies of water. The range extends from southern Canada southward to Florida and westward to Oklahoma.  

wildlife uses

The large hollow trunks of mature American sycamore trees are useful to a variety of animals in our region. Some animals, such as bears and bats, will overwinter in the huge trunks. Others, such as woodpeckers, owls, flycatchers, chickadees and wood ducks, will use these trees for nesting. The fruits and seeds are also important food sources for small birds, such as chickadees, juncos, and finches. The leaves and branches provide food for deer and beavers.

human uses

Historically, humans have used the American sycamore for many things. There are even historical records of humans living inside of the hollowed-out trunks. The sap can be used as a source of water, or boiled down and used as syrup. The wood has been used for building barns, cutting boards, cisterns, and houses.  The inner bark of the sycamore tree was historically used to make a tea that treated dysentery, tuberculosis, coughs, and common colds.

Posted by Corey Hagen  | Category: native plants

Come to Your Senses

March 23rd, 2020

Learning through exploratory play and utilization of the five major senses is proven to have the greatest benefit in younger students. This program has been developed to get the students outside and utilizing their senses. The lessons learned during the program are aligned with Hamilton County Standards for Pre-K, Kindergarten and 1st grade.

Materials needed:

Cardboard rectangle (something hard for backing)

Prep work for the activities:

Using scissors and paper, have the students draw and cut out shapes that they know. The student will use these shapes in an outdoor activity later in the program. Make sure that the student is familiar with what makes each shape unique. 

Using either scissors, a box cutter or a knife, cut out a rectangle of cardboard approximately 5” x 8”. Make sure that you choose cardboard that is smooth on one side for easier writing and coloring. You might want to cut out a couple of these for backing so that later on you can demonstrate the activity while the student has their own supplies. 

Cut some pieces of paper that will fit on and cover most of the cardboard surface that you prepared.

Using the colors of your choice, remove the paper wrapping from a couple of crayons for a nature art activity.

ACTIVITY 1: shapes in nature

Using the shapes that your student cut out, go outside and use the shapes for a scavenger hunt. The student will take one shape at a time and look for something in nature that has the same shape.

Example: for a circle, the student might find a round rock.

Example: for a heart, the student might find a heart-shaped leaf.


I Spy is a wonderful game to play in nature that focuses on the student’s sense of sight. During a nature walk, the leader will notice shapes, colors, shelters, or anything else that stands out and will be easy for the students to identify. The leader will pick one item and say “I spy with my little eye something that is purple.” The student will then look for features in nature with the color purple and guess what the leader is looking for in an answer. Spring is a great time of year to focus on colors, which also fits into the educational standards. There are many plants that are blooming and leaves that are budding with bright and vibrant colors that students will be able to identify.

ACTIVITY III: a fist full of sounds

This is a wonderful little activity to utilize the sense of hearing. Find a nice spot outside to sit down with your student. Begin the activity by asking them how many fingers that they have on one hand. Then ask the student to start with their right hand raised above their head with all of the fingers spread out. Tell them to close their eyes and not make any sounds for 20 seconds. During that time, have them pull down one of their fingers each time they hear a new sound. Once they hear 5 sounds, they will be making a fist. Discuss what they heard and what might be responsible for those noises in nature.

Activity IV: Leaf rubbing

Walk around your yard or nearby park and have the student look for their favorite leaf. It is best for this activity if they will choose a leaf that is dead and already on the ground. 

Using the cardboard, piece of paper and crayon, the student will use the following steps to create their very own leaf rubbing.

  1. Feel both sides of the leaf for texture. 

  2. Place the leaf, with the rough side facing up, on top of the cardboard.

  3. Place the piece of paper on top of the leaf (at this point the leaf should be between the cardboard and the paper).

  4. Hold the paper down firmly so that the leaf and the paper won’t easily move.

  5. Use the peeled crayon and rub back and forth over the leaf using the broad side of the crayon.

  6. If done correctly, the leaf shape and veins will be transposed on the paper.

ACTIVITY v: smells in nature

Having freedom to explore during an outdoor program is essential in allowing students/children to feel ownership over what they are learning. During this activity, allow the student to explore without any interference from adults. Have them find and choose 5 different smells that they are interested in. Once they discover the smells, help them understand why those smells are important in nature. 

Example: Some flowers have scents that help them attract pollinators.

Example: Some animals use scents to help them attract other animals (mates).


We don’t suggest using the sense of taste in nature (especially right now!), but it is always fun to incorporate a picnic lunch as a part of the program. 

Just remember that time outside is not only healthy for the children involved in the programming, but also helps stimulate the type of learning that they will remember for a lifetime. 

Did you use this lesson at home?

Please share your photos and thoughts from today’s lesson with us on our Facebook page or directly via email at [email protected]; we’d love to share them with our community. 

We also need your financial support more than ever. While our on-site field trips (and the revenue associated with them) have stopped, our work breeding the critically endangered American red wolf and caring for the many other non-releasable animals will not stop. We suggest a $5 donation if you found this lesson useful. 

Now more than ever, your continued support is critical to our work, which continues even in a global crisis. Help us weather the storm and continue caring for our animals, native plants and property.

Posted by Corey Hagen  | Category: education

Aldo Leopold, the father of modern day wildlife management, wrote about the Sandhill Cranes saying “When we hear his call, we hear no mere bird.  We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution.” The fossils of a bird with identical structure to the Sandhill Crane has been carbon dated to have lived 10 million years ago making the Sandhill Crane the longest surviving bird on the planet. Standing at over 4 feet tall and having a wing span of over 6 feet, the Sandhill Crane is one of the largest birds found in the Eastern United States. They are gray in color with a long neck, long legs and a long pointed beak used for probing in the soil for seeds and insects.  The Sandhill Cranes also have a distinctive red patch on their forehead which is larger on the males.  During breeding season, the cranes will increase the blood flow to this area on the forehead creating a bright red color to attract their potential mates. They usually live in areas with large open fields and shallow water.  Their primary food sources are seeds, insects, and benthic macroinvertebrates. 

Every year, these magnificent birds migrate from the Prairie Pothole region of the upper midwest and southern Canada down to gulf coast.  While in flight, the Sandhill Cranes call constantly. These calls can be heard from over a mile away and help the cranes keep their flight pattern. They typically fly in a V formation and can be easily distinguished from Geese by the long legs trailing behind them. Starting in 1990, the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) began a program to make Eastern Tennessee a stopover location for these migratory birds.  One of the locations chosen was the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Birchwood Tennessee.  Here a flock of some 80,000 Sandhill Cranes will stop to rest and feed during their migration South.  TWRA plants this area every year in corn to supply some of the food needs and with shallow water nearby this creates an ideal location for the Cranes to rest.

Mixed within these large flocks of Sandhill Cranes there exists one of the most highly endangered birds in the United States.  The beautiful and majestic Whooping Crane is learning to migrate with the Sandhill Cranes.  There are only about 450 Whooping Cranes in the wild and about 160 in captivity.  These birds are slightly larger than the Sandhill Cranes and have bright white plumage.  When they started the recovery program in the 1940’s, there were only 21 Whooping Cranes left alive due to habitat loss and hunting. The Whooping Cranes were taken into captivity and bred.  Since there were no wild Whooping Cranes left, when they were released, they didn’t know how or where to migrate.  Scientists used an ultralight to guide the cranes during the migration and made the trip with the natural migration of the Sandhill Cranes.  These birds have since learned to migrate with the Sandhill Crane flocks.

Want to learn more about these amazing birds? Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center in partnership with Tennessee Ornithological Society (TOS) will be hosting a day of learning about the Sandhill Cranes on January 20, 2018.  We will start the day with Dr. David Aborn.  Dr. Aborn is the Ornithology professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and has been involved with Sandhill Crane research at the Hiwassee Refuge for years. Starting at 12:00pm, he will give a brief history and discussion about the Sandhill Crane population that migrates through Tennessee. We will also provide an opportunity to view our captive Sandhill Cranes up close.  At around 1:30pm, we will board a tour bus and begin our trip out to the Hiwassee Refuge.  We will be met at the observation platform by members of TOS who will provide the use of their spotting scopes and be available to answer questions about the Sandhill Cranes. At approximately 4:30pm, we will board the tour bus and make our way back to Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center.  This will be a wonderful opportunity to learn about and enjoy these magnificent birds. 

Get Tickets

Posted by Corey Hagen

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