Plant communities of the Fingerlakes: Floodplain Forests

The freeskool in Ithaca offers some great classes, including one about fingerlakes plant communities offered by Adrian, a wonderful teacher. We had our first walk of the season this past sunday and went to Mullholland Wildflower preserve on Giles street to look at a typical flood plain forest. Note that is is still very early spring here so we learned to identify these trees without leaves!

Here is what I learned. The two main trees that makes up this floodplain community in the fingerlakes are the sycamore and the cottonwood. The Sycamore is a very distinctive tree due to its beautiful, multi colored bark, which once you know it, is unmistakable. But on an older tree you may have look up a bit to see this distinctive bark as often the older bark down below is less distinctive. 

Sycamore Bark
Sycamore Bark

The sycamore tree is an important tree in the ecosystem as they often have large hollows that provide good habitat for animals. We even saw one with a beehive in it where the bees seemed to be just waking up after the winter and buzzing around!

Here are a few other characteristics of the sycamore tree. It’s branching and leaf pattern is alternate rather than opposite or whorled. And it has a large fruit that it drops in early spring, around May and is somewhat spiny. If you are around sycamore trees you will see them everywhere on the ground in late spring. I had always seen these fruits but not known which tree they belonged to. And their leaves are large and broad, somewhat like a maple leaf.

Sycamore leaf and fruit
Sycamore leaf and fruit

Although these trees are often planted in places that are not floodplains and can survive in such conditions if you seem them in a natural habitat this may indicate a wet area or a flood plain. Look for some of the other species I will talk about next if you suspect it is!

The second main tree species in the flood plain community of the fingerlakes is the cottonwood. Cottonwood trees are fast growing trees in the poplar family, which is distinguished by deep, fissured bark, that appear to have almost diamond shaped fissures. The leaf and branch pattern of this tree is also alternate, like the sycamore. The cottonwoods we saw here were different then the ones I was familiar with in the northwest, which tended to be very tall and straight in stature, and often seemed to be planted as a hedgerow tree. These cottonwoods in the northeast were not as straight, although still quite tall.

The cottonwood wood is known to be good for carving and is what we used in Michigan for our timber framing project. It is relatively soft and straight grained.

Cottonwood bark
Cottonwood bark

Its leaves tend to be relatively small and heartshaped, with wavy edges that can be seen in the picture below, and their fruit are small and hang in clusters, and produce a cottony pollen after they ripen in June.

Cottonwood fruit and some leaves
Cottonwood fruit and some leaves. These green pods with burst open soon and let out their billowy pollen. Later in the season towards the fall they tend to turn a bit red-ish in color.

These two species, the cottonwood and the sycamore are the two plants that define this floodplain community. We also learned about a common understory tree in the community, the  box elder, latin name acer negundo. For those of you who are familiar with latin names you will notice that it is in the maple family. I had heard people talk about box elder’s and when we were guessing the identity of the tree I guessed that is was a maple, but I didn’t know that the box elder was a maple! Did you know that there are over 100 species in the maple family?! Well, apparently there are.

I guessed that the box elder was a maple because it had many burls and my woodurner friend had been talking about how maples tend to have large burls, which he likes to work with on the lathe.

In this community the box elder is often an understory tree and grows almost like a weed. Because it is competing for light it tends to be in a somewhat stressed condition, causing to to send out many leafy sprouts in an attempt to have more surface area from which to photosynthesize.

Box elder leaves and seeds
Box elder leaves and seeds

I also came to recognize the black cherry tree on this walk, a tree not necessarily typical of the flood plain community. This tree has wonderful wood for burning or smoking things and also has quite distinctive bark. Someone on our walk described it to me as potato chip bark and I think that will always stick with me. Also, as its name implies the bark is quite dark in color.

Black Cherry bark
Black Cherry bark

The fruit of this tree is also quite yummy and can be used to make jams and pies is what I hear, but the birds often get to them first!

Fruit and Leaves of the Black Cherry Tree
Fruit and Leaves of the Black Cherry Tree

Now you are a little more familiar with one of many flood plain communities! Try seeing if you can find a flood plain community in your area and see how it differs and is similar to this one! If you want to read more about this particular flood plain community a great resource is the online pdf version of the Guide to the Plant Communities of the Central Finger Lakes Region by Charles L. Mohler, Peter L. Marks, and Sana Gadescu which can be found here through cornell’s ecommons.

One last cool thing I learned from a fellow student on the plant walk was a handy acronym by which to remember the trees that have opposite branching patterns: MAD CAP HORSE. Here is how it works

M – maple

A – ash

D – dogwood

CAP – caprifoliaceae family (honeysuckly and vibernum family)

HORSE – horse chestnut

All of these have opposite branching and leafing patterns, while the others tend to have alternate or whorl patterns. Opposite means that they will branch both ways at each point, giving the plant an overall somewhat symmetrical look.

Hope you learned something!

Until next time…


One Comment

  1. What a nice post. We’re a bit north of you, so our floodplains tend not to have Sycamores, but your story has us daydreaming about them. The little trick for remembering which trees have alternate branching is quite handy. Twig structure is probably the easiest way to identify trees throughout the year.


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