Roark: Sycamore is easy to identify in winter

Published 4:23 pm Monday, February 26, 2024

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By Steve Roark

Contributing Writer

Sycamore (Planatus occidentalis) is a very common tree in our area and easy to find growing along streams and lakes. It is also one of the easier trees to identify in the woods because all of its identifying features stand out.

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The sycamore leaves are large and as broad as they are long, with a big-toothed edge. The leaf also has a fuzzy underside that can be a source of respiratory irritation. The fruit forms in the fall as a cluster of seeds forming a perfect brown ball about an inch or two in diameter, hanging from a long stem and persisting into winter. The balls look like buttons, and sycamore was called “buttonwood” in colonial times. The winter bud on the twigs is dark brown and shaped like a Hershey’s Kiss. The bark is what stands out the most to identify the species. The base is usually brown and somewhat shreddy, while the upper trunk and branches have a mottled appearance of brown, green, and pale white. The outer brown bark sloughs off in longish strips, exposing the other two colors and making the bark resemble scraped-off wallpaper. Often, white is the predominant color of the upper limbs, and against a bright blue sky, it has a nice look. At night, the white limbs almost glow under a full moon, giving sycamore the nickname “ghost tree”.

In girth, sycamore is the largest hardwood species in North America. Early records show diameters at the base of nearly 15 feet. It’s not uncommon to find trees with 4–5-foot diameters, with heights of over 100 feet. Many older sycamores are hollow. The large size of the trunk and its propensity to be hollow makes the tree useful for hibernating bears. There are old journals of early pioneers living in hollow sycamores prior to building a cabin. One journal mentions a giant sycamore on the Ohio River where Native Americans held meetings inside it, which could hold 29 people sitting down.

The tree is not used by wildlife to any extent. Finches feed on the seed, and beaver eats the inner bark. Humans don’t place a high value on the wood, mainly using it for pallets, railroad ties, and particleboard. Early settlers used large hollow trees to make a storage bin called a “hogs head”. Its greatest benefit is probably soil stabilization along stream banks, thanks to its massive root system.

Sycamore is a popular landscape tree but it can break easily in high winds and tends to drop a lot of branches. It is related to the European plane tree, which is a popular ornamental. The tree is mentioned in the Bible, but it’s not the same species. The sycamore Zacchaeus climbed up into to get a look at Jesus (Luke 19:2) was a species of fig.

Steve Roark is a volunteer at Cumberland Gap Historical Park.