Stark Beauty: The Sycamore

11.21.17


pale fire

pale fire

The American sycamore, Platanus occidentalis,  is a big showy tree that is rendered even more so in the winter landscape, where its bleached boughs seem to beseech the heavens. Its distinctive peeling bark creates a sort of camouflage pattern on the trunk. The enormous maple-like leaves fall to the ground, leaving dangling seed pods that resemble spiky pom-poms. The seeds are eaten by finches, chickadees and dark-eyed juncos, as well as muskrats, beavers and squirrels. 

odd pods

odd pods

Sycamores are full of drinkable sap—an accessible source of water, should you need it. The sapsucker bird avails itself of this, drilling lines of small holes in the bark to get at it. After the bird flies away, insects come to feed on the sweet sap. The clever sapsucker then returns to eat the bugs. And so it goes.

distinctive bark

distinctive bark

These trees can grow so large that their hollow trunks have provided shelter to many a creature, both human and not. The champion sycamore in the United States, in Jeromesville, Ohio, is 129 fee tall, with a crown spread of 105 feet, and nearly 50 feet around at the base. Sycamores are susceptible to anthracnose, a kind of leaf and twig blight that can prove fatal to the tree.

painting by vincent van gogh

painting by vincent van gogh

Those of you reading this in New York City can see a similar tree, the London plane tree (Platanus × acerifolia), thought to be a hybrid of American sycamore and the oriental plane tree, growing throughout the city. It is also a common sight in many Provençal villages in France, where the trees tower over village squares and have become symbols of socializing and spending time with loved ones.

Laura SilvermanComment