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

Monday, April 19, 2010

Sycamore Fruit

Buttonballs, ready to drop

On a recent Saturday morning, my son and I spent two hours parked in a long line of stalled traffic on Interstate 65, just north of Elizabethtown, KY. An accident had occurred, and we had to wait until the road was cleared.

It was an absolutely gorgeous spring day, and our stopping place happened to be along a picturesque stretch of roadway. On our left, many dogwood and redbud trees were blooming on an east-facing hillside. On our right, a tangle of small trees and bushes were growing on the side of a ravine. Towering above them all was a young sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), seen in both the photo at left and the photo below.

Look how many of last year's fruits are still clinging to the top of that scyamore. This is typical of the tree -- in tree-speak, it's said that the sycamore fruits "persist" over winter.

The prickly seedballs break apart slowly, and the seeds gradually fall from the tree in late winter and spring. When there is wind or even a bit of breeze, the seeds drift along, using their "hair" as a parachute to keep them aloft. 

The seed release is also perfectly timed for the seeds to be dispersed by spring floods. As the waters recede, seeds left in the mud are in the ideal spot to sprout and grow.

If you want to plant a sycamore tree, look for a seedling in the spring. You can recognize them by their large leaves. They are easy to dig up and transplant when they are small.

A sycamore seed that takes root in a friendly site can grow up to 10 feet in its first year. That's simply amazing -- from a seed to a 10-foot tree in 12 months.

Sycamore likes any damp location. It is most often seen in low-lying areas near streams, ponds, and lakes, but it can also establish itself in upland situations where the soil stays damp most of the time. The sycamore growing on the side of the ravine is a good example of the upland situations that sycamores can handle. In that site, it probably gets a good bit of runoff water from the road everytime it rains.

Leaves and fruit of Platanus occidentalis, American sycamore
Photo by Joseph O'Brien, USDA Forest Service,

2 comments -- please add yours:

Laurrie said...

We have sycamores growing all over our damp stream beds here. In fact Connecticut's largest tree is a huge gnarly old sycamore. The seed ball picture at the end of your post looks like spiky sweet gum, not feathery sycamore balls.

Genevieve said...

Laurie, I took down the other photo this morning because I agreed with you that it looked like a sweet gum ball. (I had found the image on Flikr, and it's not uncommon for trees to be mislabeled there.)

When I looked for a replacement image this evening, I found quite a few examples of spiky sycamore balls, and also some smoother looking ones. The image I chose is from a reliable source, and it shows sycamore leaves surrounding spiky fruit.

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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."

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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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