Wild Ideas: Beautiful bones: the sycamore

The trees in Virginia’s deciduous forests are diverse and downright beautiful: In spring they offer a pale emerging beauty that lifts our spirits. In summer they fill the forest landscape with a lush green. In fall they give us an array of bright color. In winter, the leaves are gone and the structure of the trees is revealed in subtle earth tones, with one exception — the sycamore.

Without having to compete with other trees for light, this huge old sycamore on Main Street in Sperryville has expanded its canopy. Its trunk measures around four feet in diameter near the base.
Without having to compete with other trees for light, this huge old sycamore on Main Street in Sperryville has expanded its canopy. Its trunk measures around four feet in diameter near the base. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

Sycamores are arguably at their best in winter. With their leaves gone, they show off their beautiful bones — their trunks and limbs. The sycamore’s mottled, camouflage-patterned outer bark tends to peel off easily. Weather can contribute to this peeling, which may be why sycamores tend to keep more of their bark near their base, which is less exposed to wind. The layer of bark underneath can be greenish or bright white, offering a lovely contrast to the sycamore’s duller-colored neighbors this time of year.

The sycamore is a tree of mystery because of its bark. Why does it peel off so easily and why is it white underneath? Theories are few and conflict. The New York City Parks website (nycgovparks.org) runs through some theories, which include floodplain adaptation, protection from herbivores and bark photosynthesis. I could find nothing about why the layer underneath is white.

Sycamores love water, growing along banks of streams, in wetlands and in rich bottomland. As a kid I associated them with wide rivers and lower elevations because the most spectacular ones I saw were mostly along the Potomac River. My father and I used to fish at what was known as Weant’s Dock, just upstream from Great Falls, and I fell in love with these huge white trees that leaned out over the river to catch the sun. Later, when I lived in Reston, I’d often go hiking along that same shore, which had become Riverbend Regional Park, and would sit and admire those same trees.

When I moved to Rappahannock I found sycamores almost everywhere in the county, even up steep slopes like the mountain where I live. The key is water: Where I live, the mountain is covered with springs, below and above ground.

Like most other trees, sycamores tend to get wider, fuller crowns and gain more trunk girth the more direct light they catch. However, the streams running down my mountain are fast and narrow, with the crowns of the trees along them touching overhead. With no vast expanse of sunlight to lean into, as along the lower Potomac, the sycamores up here tend to grow a bit straighter, seeking whatever sunlight is filtering in through the forest canopy above.

The growth habit of many trees in eastern deciduous forests can be lovely. It’s hard to beat an oak, for example, when it comes to grace and beauty. A hundred years ago, magnificent chestnuts were forest royalty. The sycamore, on the other hand, has limbs that jut out at awkward angles, giving the tree a more jagged appearance. Still, the large patches of white along its trunk and limbs gives this tree a beauty all its own.

Virginia’s native sycamore (Platinus occidentalis) — known as the eastern or American sycamore, buttonwood, occidental plane or planetree — is the largest native tree in eastern North America. As large sycamores age and rot from the inside, they provide nesting and denning opportunities for wildlife. According to the NYC Parks website, “In colonial times, families used hollow sycamores as temporary shelter, and a single trunk cavity was known to hold up to 15 men on horseback!”

Sycamores shed their bark for reasons that are unclear. Underneath, the surface can be mottled or stark white, as shown in the young sycamore above.
Sycamores shed their bark for reasons that are unclear. Underneath, the surface can be mottled or stark white, as shown in the young sycamore above. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News

According to “Common Native Trees of Virginia,” a useful guide to our native trees produced by the Virginia Department of Forestry (VDOF), sycamores generally grow from 80 to 100 feet tall and three to four feet in diameter. However, they can attain a height of more than 150 feet and a diameter of 10 feet. They tend to grow bigger in deep soil.

According to the Virginia Big Tree project database (bigtree.cnre.vt.edu/), the largest current sycamore in Virginia in terms of overall size (a combination of height, trunk circumference and diameter and crown diameter) is in Fairfax County. When measured last year, it was 148 feet high, had a trunk circumference of 333 inches (27.75 feet), a trunk diameter of 106 inches (8.8 feet) and a crown diameter of 91 feet.

The sycamore’s trunk coloring and size are not the only spectacular things about it. Its leaves resemble maple leaves, but are much larger — 5 to 8 inches long and 15 inches wide, with three to five lobes and large-toothed edges.

Sycamores are least attractive in fall, when their leaves turn brown and spotty, but have yet to drop off and reveal the tree’s beautiful bones. By then the tree’s fruits, which look like hairy brown cherries, begin to dry, and eventually blow away in the winter wind, helped by the tiny hairs attached to the fruit. Songbirds benefit from the tiny seeds packed inside. According to the VDOF guide, the sycamore’s wood, which is hard and moderately strong, is used for chopping blocks, furniture, interior finish, particleboard, fiberboard, paper pulp and biomass for energy production.

I’ve long wondered why lyricist John Blackburn featured the sycamore (in his lyrics to “Moonlight in Vermont”): “Pennies in a stream / Falling leaves, a sycamore / Moonlight in Vermont.” The usual reason floated was that he’d never been there. But still, why the sycamore? Having gone to Bennington College in Vermont, I picture more aspen, birch and maples when I think of my time there.

That’s not to say there aren’t sycamores in Vermont. The Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation (vtfpr.org) lists among the state’s largest trees a sycamore in Townshend, a town in southern Vermont that is 64 inches in diameter and 202 feet high. Mary Ann Clark, in “Trees of Vermont,” writes that sycamores are “abundant” in the southwest portion of the state, but that the species “is at its northern limit” in Vermont. Perhaps Blackburn spent a vacation there and remembered the sycamore’s beauty. It would be hard to forget.

@ 2014 Pam Owen

Sidebar: Virginia’s remarkable sycamores

Some truly grand sycamores, including one “champion” tree, are featured in the 2008 book “Remarkable Trees of Virginia” by Nancy Ross Hugo and Jeff Kirwan. The book is the result of an ongoing project to identify remarkable native trees throughout the commonwealth and has excellent photos by Robert Llewellyn. Kirwan also works on the Virginia Big Tree project, and the statistics in the book about the largest, “champion” trees came from that project’s database.

One of the sycamores featured is in Hanover County, at Sycamore Tavern in the village of Montpelier. According to the book, the tree’s nominators cited a long list of community connections to the tree: “It has provided shade for history camp, children’s story time, special events, weddings and receptions . . . The roots are an interesting shape and have hollow places which house baby rabbits from time to time.”

Also featured is a sycamore in Augusta County that is 5.5 feet in diameter, listing at a 45-degree angle and “surprisingly graceful.” The Moon Tree, in Hampton, was named for its seed having been transported by Apollo 14 astronaut Stuart Rosa when he orbited the moon. In Albemarle County, the Dancing Tree grows in a floodplain near the Moormans River, “where it is a frequent subject of artists.” In Accomac, a “huge and healthy” sycamore “as white as any sycamore you’ll ever see” bears a plaque dating it all the way back to 1776.”

At the time, a sycamore along the James River at Natural Bridge Station in Rockbridge County was the third largest in Virginia. In a recent email correspondence, Kirwan said that since the book was written, some of the trees in it have died and others have been discovered. “The Rockbridge tree no longer is in the top five,” he writes. “Larger ones were found, so it is no longer listed.”

“Remarkable Trees of Virginia” is available at the Rappahannock County Public Library or online at web2.cnre.vt.edu/4h/remarkabletree. To search on the current big tree standings for sycamores and other species of trees in Virginia, visit bigtree.cnre.vt.edu and click on Virginia Database.

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 335 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”