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Ohio Trees – American Sycamore.

June 8, 2013

American Sycamore Tree

I’m long overdue in highlighting some of nature’s most magnificent sights towering above us.  And I can’t think of a better tree to start with than the American Sycamore, one of my favorites.

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American Sycamores are very distinctive- they are easy to distinguish from the average run-of-the-mill tree.  Perhaps this is why they are a favorite of mine- before I knew how to identify different tree species, this one stood out.

These trees are native to North America- for a change, these trees were imported to Europe, instead of the other way around.  They have ancestors that go back to the end of the dinosaur age.  They are a fairly common bottomwood species.

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Sycamores are very photogenic- I never tire of taking pictures of them

Centuries ago, both Native Americans and and frontiersmen would look for the white branches of this large tree in the distance, which indicated that water was nearby.  Sycamores often will line rivers and lakes, as they prefer moist soil.

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I took this picture of geese flying, but look behind them and see the white trunks and branches of Sycamores lining the shore of the lake

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Sycamores line the banks of this creek

This is a big tree, both tall and wide- it is considered to be the most massive tree in the eastern United States.  It easily can grow to be well over 100 feet tall, and old tree trunks can be huge in circumference.  There are tales of settlers living inside of dead tree trunks used as small cabins, and of frontiersmen hiding from Native Americans in hollowed-out trunks.

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It’s hard to get the scale of the size of this Sycamore stump, but you could easily lay down in it

This old tree in Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park may very well have sheltered people, bears and other wildlife for many many years

The world’s largest Sycamore stump is 57 feet in circumference!  This tree is estimated to have been 800 years old, and a dozen people can fit inside.

One drawback of this massive size and hollowness is that old Sycamores are sometimes blown down in severe windstorms, or struck by lightning.  This can lead to losing trees that are centuries old.

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This starling is nesting in a hole in this Sycamore’s massive branch

Another problem Sycamores encounter is a fungus called anthracnose.  This can cause new spring twigs and leaves to drop off, though more leaves growing later in the season will usually grow out normally.

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The leaves of Sycamores are large, befitting a large tree- I often see leaves the size of dinner plates

It’s not uncommon for Sycamore trunks to divide near the ground, giving a split-tree look.  The canopy often looks irregular due to its large branches.

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Yellow-Throated Warblers are especially fond of this tree, and can sometimes be seen singing from its branches

Sycamore wood has been used extensively for butcher’s blocks, boxes and crates.  The wood is coarse-grained and difficult to work with, so its use for furniture and other fine products is limited.  It is a recent favored species grown for biomass (fuel) on tree farms.

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This tree is often seen in parks- it gives ample shade, and looks pleasing

Curiously enough, Sycamores have both male and female flowers on the same tree, which hang from different branches.  They are pollinated by the wind.

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The fruit are known as buttonballs, which are fibrous seed pods

Sycamores have been called ‘Buttonwoods’ in the past due to their fruit

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The bark has an attractive mottled gray green and brown appearance.  Unlike the bark of most other trees, it is rigid and forms scales on the tree.  It flakes off in the summer as the tree grows, leaving slabs laying on the ground and exposing the white wood underneath.

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In the excellent central Ohio Metro Park system, information plaques are often posted in parks.  Here’s the plaque for the American Sycamore.

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Overall, Sycamores have tons of character, and stand out from the crowd.  Many birds can be seen in their branches.  If you see one of these trees, take a close look at it and enjoy!

30 Comments leave one →
  1. June 8, 2013 8:10 pm

    Wonderful photos and indepth information. I am always trying to expand my knowledge of the world around me so I am grateful for you post…thank you for sharing.

  2. June 8, 2013 9:25 pm

    Glorious trees and wonderful photographs: thank you so much.

  3. June 8, 2013 10:31 pm

    As luck would have it, I spent some time sitting under a huge old sycamore tree this afternoon watching birds and admiring the tree itself.

  4. June 8, 2013 11:20 pm

    I feel that Sycamores are especially beautiful in the winter.

  5. June 9, 2013 6:36 am

    Thank you for this – I walk among trees every day and would love to know more about what I’m seeing. This is a great start!

    • June 9, 2013 11:18 am

      You’re most welcome! It’s easy to take trees for granted, but when you start noticing them, they are interesting indeed.

  6. June 9, 2013 9:18 am

    Such a stately tree! I love its peeling bark.

    • June 9, 2013 11:19 am

      The bark is really neat, Pat- sometimes you can find whole sheets of it beneath a tree in the summer.

  7. June 9, 2013 9:37 am

    Great post, Tracy. I never realized that these were native trees. So beautiful, but they belong in the woods and in parks where they have room to spread to their glory. Unfortunately, people in this area often plant them in small city and suburban yards and they far outgrow their space and become a nuisance. I’m glad to know more about them.

    • June 9, 2013 11:20 am

      Thanks Lynn- it’s true, I occasionally see a Sycamore in a yard, if it’s a big yard that’s less of an issue but this tree is definitely not a small yard tree!

  8. June 9, 2013 3:37 pm

    They are beautiful trees, standing out from, and above the “crowd.” Interesting about the hollowed-out trunks providing room to get inside. Those cavity-nesting birds would love this.

    • June 9, 2013 4:24 pm

      Very true, Patti- I read somewhere that Chimney Swifts would roost and nest in hollow Sycamores before humans started building all of our chimneys which they now prefer.

  9. June 10, 2013 12:30 am

    Very interesting and informative. This one doesn’t grow this far west, so I’ve never seen it.

    • June 10, 2013 1:49 am

      They’re magnificent trees Montucky- though you certainly have many of those types in Montana too!

  10. June 10, 2013 4:23 am

    Thanks for the interesting history and info. I had no idea they dated back to the dinosaurs. I didn’t know they could grow so huge. I think it’s because the only I’ve been around were growing on a small rocky peninsula and haven’t grow very large.
    I would like to see a huge one with the hallows big enough to stand in. I wonder if the ones folks may have lived in, if even for a short time, may have been what inspired a few of the stories of nature folks or magical beings.

    • June 10, 2013 11:43 am

      Those ‘tree houses’ fascinate me, E.C.- I can see how one big enough to set up house in would be attractive to pioneers 🙂

  11. June 10, 2013 7:46 pm

    I love sycamores too. Your post reminded me to go and visit a couple near here. I’ve noticed their bark peels more on the side towards the sun-the shaded side hardly peels at all. I’ve never seen a hollow one, but I’d like to.

    • June 10, 2013 8:08 pm

      That’s interesting, Gardener- I’ll have to check out the bark this summer. There’s some centuries-old Sycamores along Ohio river valleys, the hollow ones are really cool!

  12. June 11, 2013 5:16 am

    Very interesting – what a wonderful tree, and lovely photos! I love the buttonballs and the flaking bark. It does make an impressive sight with its pale branches.

  13. June 13, 2013 11:02 pm

    Hi Seasons, Well, guess what tree is smack dab in the middle of my rather small back yard here in FL? Yes, it is a very huge Sycamore. Have a wonderful Friday tomorrow!

  14. July 6, 2013 12:50 pm

    One of our favorite trees. Beautiful all year round!

  15. July 28, 2013 8:15 pm

    I found your blog because I was looking up to see why our sycamore has just recently left a wheelbarrow load of bark on the ground. What an informative article. Yes, it’s a messy tree, and it is really too close to our house, but it is massive and beautiful. I can only get my arms halfway around it. My granddaughter informed me that the buttonballs are also called monkey balls.
    Anyway, I love your nature photography. You have a new follower.

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