Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Sycamores: Big Trees with White Branches

American planetree, "buttonball," Platanus occidentalis


American sycamore or planetree
Sycamore growing beside a creek

Sycamore at a pond's edge
Sycamores are water-loving trees.
With long white arms flung to the winter skies, the American sycamore is one of the most recognizable and attractive native trees in the landscape this time of the year. It is often found in moist areas such as road ditches, creek and pond banks, or low valleys.

The bark of the sycamore is one of its best identifying features. Mottled below and grayish-white on its upper branches, with some patchy peeling, it can hardly be mistaken. If leaves are not present, look for the sycamore's fruit, the brownish "buttonballs" that appear in late summer. A few fruits will often hang on until the next spring. (I noticed several sycamores today with fruit still very obvious in their upper branches.)

Though the sycamore is a beautiful tree in its natural habitat, think twice about where (or whether!) to plant it in your yard. It often grows up to 100 feet in height and breadth, and it's a rather messy tree, dropping lots of little branches and big leaves all the time. Also, it tends to put out large surface roots that will interfere with lawn mowing. (I am speaking from personal experience.)

Sycamore seedlings
Small sycamores growing in a rock crevice
very near Cumberland Falls (in Kentucky)
We have transplanted two sycamore seedlings in early spring, just as soon as the seedling had a leaf and could be identified. One seedling sprang up in my garden, and we came across the other on a muddy road shoulder. In just a couple of months, look for sycamore seedlings in any mud flat (small or large) where adult sycamores are nearby.

My husband has often said to me jokingly that we see a lot of big sycamores in Kentucky because sycamore lumber is useless. However, I read tonight that sycamore lumber is usable if properly cured to control warping due to a high degree of shrinkage. Perhaps inadequate curing explains the conventional wisdom that sycamore firewood won't burn.

American sycamore is grown in short-rotation plantations primarily for pulp and it also is used for rough lumber. The heavy, close-grained wood is difficult to split and work because of interlocking fibers. It has been used for butcher's blocks, furniture, veneer and interior trim, boxes and crates, flooring, and particle and fiberboard.

Source: USDA Plant Guide (pdf)

Another "Tree Note"Probably the main reason that we see a lot of big sycamores in Kentucky is that the tree is very fast growing. In just 20 years, it can grow 70 feet tall!

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Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

Charles Sprague Sargent (1841-1927)

Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

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