Viewing the winter landscape does not have the brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows of fall. It does not have the subtle shades of green we see in the summer. It looks naked, barren, and bleak. But tucked away along streams and rivers is one magnificent tree that really struts it stuff even on the bleakest winter day; the North American Sycamore. The tree has many other common names as well; American planetree, Buttonwood, and Buttonball-tree.
The Sycamore tree is deciduous tree that belongs to the plane-tree family. It originates from Europe, but it can be found around the world today. There are three basic types of sycamore: North American Sycamore, British Sycamore, and Middle Eastern Sycamore. They differ in size, color of the bark and leaves, and habitats where they can be found. Sycamore requires fertile, moist, and well-drained soil and full sun for the successful development. However it can grow in almost all types of soil. It usually grows near streams, river banks, and lakes. The American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is one of the largest and oldest North American native trees. It is a member of one of the planet’s oldest family of trees (Platanaceae) that have been dated to be over 100 million years old. Living sycamore trees can reach ages of five hundred to six hundred years. Sycamore grows in all States east of the Great Plains except Minnesota. Its native range extends from southwestern Maine west to southern Wisconsin; south to northwestern Florida and southeastern Georgia. It is also found in the mountains of northeastern Mexico. Sycamores can be massive, growing to over 100 feet tall and with a crown of 70 feet in diameter. They have the largest diameter of any American hardwood, in some cases growing to over 10 feet. In colonial times, families used hollow sycamores as temporary shelter. A popular myth during the revolutionary war was that a single trunk cavity was known to hold up to 15 men on horseback. Sounds like a mighty tall tale. The current record holder in Ohio is 15 feet in diameter. Poland Woods, in Poland Ohio, has several Sycamore trees that exceed 10 feet in diameter. Throughout American history, trees have played an important role. Along with the White Pine, Elm, and others; the Sycamore has its own unique place in history. The Buttonwood Agreement, which took place on May 17, 1792, started the New York Stock & Exchange Board now called the New York Stock Exchange. This agreement was signed by 24 stockbrokers outside of 68 Wall Street New York under a “buttonwood tree”. The organization drafted its constitution on March 8, 1817, and named itself the “New York Stock & Exchange Board”. In 1863, this name was shortened to its modern form, the “New York Stock Exchange”.
Anyone beginning tree identification can easily commit this tree to memory. Sycamores are readily identifiable, with broad, maple-like leaves and a trunk and limb complexion of mixed green, tan and cream. Some suggest it looks like camouflage. Bark of sycamore is covered with creamy-white and reddish-brown patches on the surface. Creamy patches represent newly formed, fresh bark, while reddish-brown pieces represent exfoliating, old bark. There are many theories as to why the bark peels off, but most agree it is due to the fast growing nature of the tree and the thin nature of the bark. Just think of when you put on some pants, bend over, and hear that sound of your pants ripping. The tree out grows the bark and it rips. The mottled bark composed of irregular flakes creates impression of skin falling off or some type of skin malady.
The Sycamore is a monoecious plant which means that it produces individual male and female flowers on the same plant. Flowers are yellowish-green, arranged in drooping clusters. Sycamores bloom during April. Flowers produce nectar which attracts bees, main pollinators of this species. Fruit of sycamore are brown, woody balls that can be seen on the tree starting from October. They remain on the tree during the winter. Fully ripe fruit splits to release seed. Seed of sycamore are arranged in V-shaped pairs and equipped with wings that facilitate dispersal by wind. One tree produces up to 10.000 seed per season.
The sycamore has medium-weight wood that is sturdy and durable, but also easily worked. Native Americans used American sycamore for dugout canoes. However they had to be careful and let the tree trunk dry out before they used it. A freshly cut sycamore log sinks in water! The wood of the American sycamore works well for furniture, cabinets, flooring, paneling, crates, and butcher blocks. Native Americans used Sycamores for many medicinal purposes, and the seed balls are prized by crafters today.
Keep a look out for this magnificent tree this winter as you drive around northeast Ohio. I am sure you will easily see these beautiful sentinels of the snow.