Common Name: Sycamore, American Plane Tree, Buttonball Tree – The common name is of obscure origin, though to derive from the Greek words for fig, sykon and mulberry, moron, the original tree is native to Egypt and Asia Minor and has fig like fruits.
Scientific Name: Platanus occidentalis – The generic name is Greek for broad, describing the large leaves and Latin for maple leaf, referring to the maple-like lobes of the leaves. The species name distinguishes as the western variant of a Eurasian tree
Potpourri: The name sycamore applies to three different trees. In the Bible, Ficus sycomorus is an Egyptian native shade tree that has a fruit similar but inferior to the common fig. In England a maple shade tree, Acer pseudoplatanus, is called the sycamore. The third sycamore is the North American P. occidentalis. To confuse matters, American sycamores were imported to England in the 17th century and were called the American Plane Tree. They were cross bred with the local Oriental Plane Tree (P. orientalis) to produce the hybrid London Plane Tree (P. xacerifolia) which is widely grown in England due to its general hardiness, rapid growth, and resistance to disease.
The American sycamore is generally considered to be the largest of the eastern hardwood trees. The largest known sycamore has a circumference of 49 feet, which equates to a diameter of over 15 feet. It grows rapidly, as much as 4 feet per year, reaching a height of over 120 feet. Its many forked branches form a massive crown that can span over 100 feet. It can live for over 500 years, a valued shade tree for ornamental plantings.
The sycamore bark is a thin red veneer that readily strips off as the tree grows, exposing the underlying gray, brown, or green wood. In the winter, it presents an almost spectral pallor that offsets the drab shades of the other deciduous trees. The Persian King Xerxes (519-465 BCE) found the sycamore so beautiful that he had a gold medal struck with the image that he wore as an amulet. Due to its stunning appearance it was frequently chosen by the Sons of Liberty as the spot designated as a meeting point for clandestine activity. The sycamore thus was frequently chosen as the Liberty Tree, as was the case in Newport, Rhode Island. The British cut them down or burned them as a means to prevent the spread of the insurgency.
The sycamore tree is festooned with small, spherical balls that are suspended from the branches. This is the source of the name Buttonball Tree. The balls are composed of several hundred fruiting bodies called achenes that consist of a seed and a conical structure with stiff yellow-green bristle fibers (strawberries also have achenes). When the balls disintegrate between February and May, the seeds are dispersed by the wind, abetted by the fibrous tufts that act like sails. The seeds may land in a stream, contributing to the dispersion of sycamores along stream banks and in wet areas of the forest, as they prefer deep, moist and rich soils that are moderately drained.
Sycamore wood is characterized by a grain structure that alternates in its growth pattern from year to year. As the grain is not aligned, it is very difficult to split and it is therefore seldom used for firewood or for large scale constructions. However, it is hard and tough. Early colonists cut logs into cross sections through which they bored a central hole to use for the wheels of ox carts. It was also used for butchers’ blocks, barber poles, wooden washing machines and wooden stereoscopes. Its attractive grain structure made it suitable for aesthetic applications like the backs of violins and the paneling in Pullman railway cars. Native Americans used an entire tree to make dugout canes, some as long as 65 feet.
Sycamores frequently become hollow with age. Due to their great girth, hollow sycamore trees were once subject to the colonial equivalent to packing a phone booth. Up to fifteen men on horseback or forty dismounted men were said to have fit inside one tree. They were purported to serve as a temporary shelter for pioneer families. The hollowness makes them an ideal nesting location for squirrels and raccoons, and for fish once they fall into the streams.
Due to its prodigious growth, sycamore plantations for agricultural timber harvests were established in the 1960’s and the 1970’s. In 1979, more than one third of the hardwood plantations in the Southeast were sycamore, amounting for 3700 acres. Like oaks, however, sycamores are subject to anthracnose, a group of fungal pathogens that attack in the spring, causing the leaves to rapidly wilt, leading ultimately to defoliation.