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Trees: Sycamore

“There is this trashy tree in the front yard of your old house that is dropping bark and branches and these little seed balls all over my Audi.  Since there is only the macadam car-pad and no car-port, I am going to cut down the tree.”  When I heard Michael Miller’s words on my answering machine, I nearly lost it. Cut down the tree? You have got to be kidding!  That tree, a gorgeous, very old and stately sycamore, probably has the broadest reach of any tree of its kind in the state of Maryland: its branches could touch all four sides of a baseball diamond.  Tracy and I had moved to Washington state when we got the call and we had owned the house where this tree grew, before the Millers bought it.  My grandparents had lived on the property since the 1940’s and had always loved that tree.  I determined that that it must NOT be removed!

Leaving a return voice message for the Millers on their answering machine, I followed up with a strong letter.  The message: the tree is a jewel, older than the town of Ruxton where they lived, and it should be revered for its magnificence, not hated for its droppings.

It appeared that my pleas were heard, because the Millers did not cut down the tree.  They moved about a year later and never hired “any fool with a chain saw” to slice it down.  If we had gone to the effort of “registering” the tree with the Maryland Arbor Society, we could have enhanced my case with the Millers and subsequent owners, but I had not. The next family who moved into our former house, lucky for us, must have agreed with our sentimental feelings.  Due to the trashiness of the tree, they welcomed the sycamore to its home and parked on the driveway away from the car-pad.

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Tree-ology

My peculiar point of view for trees developed when I was a summer camp counselor in New Mexico with the Cottonwood Gulch Expeditions.  Every counselor worth his salt was supposed to pick an “-ology” that they could share with the campers. I was a psychology major in college and had taken biology, but I had no specific scientific bent.  We already had great counselors who were majoring in geology, ornithology, and herpetology. Those roles were filled by counselors with the passion and training for those disciplines. Approaching the Group Leader, Chet Kubit, I asked what science might need some help among the campers.  He said, “Look around and decide what you would like to study.  Pick one that you would like to discover alongside the trekkers.” So I picked trees.

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Henry inspecting Petrified Forests in New Mexico

What I liked about trees was that you stood still, alive or petrified. I did not have to chase after them, like you do birds and reptiles, and I did not have to spend hours digging or chipping to find it, like you do with archaeology or geology.  With trees, they seemed to stay in one place for a long time.  I could walk up to it, look at the bark and fruit and environment, pull out my manual and identify it.  I liked the simplicity of that science. I figured that if I could find the right Tree Guidebook on the subject, I could be a regular arborist in no time.  Right? No, wrong!

As a novice in the tree identification business, I got the evergreens and the few deciduous trees figured out that grew around the Base Camp, but I soon realized that there was a lot more to the tree thing than I imagined.  Trees are more than green plumage and seeds flowing from trunks.  And many trees are hard to identify, even to the trained eye.  I had hoped to be able to spot them from a distance (from the road, for example) and, without having to walk many steps, recognize exactly what they were.  That skill would take a very long time to develop.

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Henry trying to identify plants in Alaska

I came to understand that to know a tree, I had to look at the water source, the amount of light, the surrounding soil, the leaves, the seeds, the trunk, and the insects and animals around it.  Each tree becomes its own little ecosystem and if I did not see the whole system, I missed the beauty of the tree itself.  Some are fire resistant, others kindling for the next match.  Some are lone rangers (sequoia), others massive root systems with thousands of sapling shoots (aspen).  I had a lot to learn.

In high Sonoran Desert of New Mexico, there aren’t many trees, so the identification was pretty easy: juniper, piñon pine, cottonwood, oak, willow and that was about it.  But as we headed up to Colorado and the San Juan Mountains it got a lot more complicated.  Were those Engelmann Spruce, Colorado Spruce, Blue Spruce, Eastern Red Cedar, European Larch, Rocky Mountain Juniper, Ponderosa Pine, Bristlecone Pine, Eastern White Pine, Western White Pine, Scrub Oak, Gambrel Oak, or Douglas Fir, and how quickly could I answer a kid’s questions about them?

Then there were all of those deciduous varieties to add to the interesting complications: ash, aspen, willow, alder, cottonwood (Fremont, Narrow Leaf and Silver), tamarisk along the stream beds, which thrived in what is called “the riparian zone” of the periodic water flows.  Riparian.  I like the word, because it sounds so exotic and earthy.

It took a while, but by the end of the first summer, I started to get the hang of it. Chet Kubit said I was taking the topic too seriously, but I felt that it was incumbent on the counselors to know the answers.  I was not a “scientist” per se, but I should at least be a good resource for the trekkers.  Over a few years I eased up and allowed ignorance and curiosity to sit side by side.  I did not have to know exactly what tree that was.  I found some good field guides and learned to love the trees.  And I was OK with that: simple and pleasing.

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What are Sycamore Trees?

The sycamore in our front yard in Maryland is from one of the most common varieties of trees in the Eastern U.S., Europe and Mexico.  The trees come from the genus Plantanus and are native to the Northern Hemisphere.  We call them SYCAMORES, while other cultures call them Plane Trees.  There are lots of other subspecies of Plane Trees which have thrived and been hybridized around the world.

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Habitat of the American Sycamore

According to Wikipedia, similar species have been found on nearly every continent on Earth and go by such exotic names as London Plane, Chiapas Plane, Gentry’s Plane, Oaxaca Plane, Oriental Plane, American Sycamore, American Plane, Buttonwood, Occidental Plane, California Sycamore, Western Sycamore, Aliso, and Rzedowski’s Plane.[1] One of the common traits of all of these trees is the environment where they grow best: close to a near-constant water source.

The individual American Sycamore tree that thrived in our yard in Maryland had developed a root system that extended down to a natural spring, which periodically surfaced after heavy rains.  The tree probably germinated about 200 years ago. Through drought and freeze and rain and wind, there was plenty of water to feed the sapling as it grew. If the water were less dependable, the tree would not have survived, much less grown to such grandeur. If the water were swifter and subject to flooding, the tree might have been swept away as its roots destabilized and the soil became undermined, as experienced by other trees on our property in Baltimore County alongside Roland Run.

At the same time Plane trees are extremely adaptable and seem to do well in urban areas, where crowded sidewalks and city gardens abound.  The trees in New York City and London and Paris, are a testament to the ingenuity of arborists have developed to hybridize, prune, and plant these beautiful trees.  My observation is that while Plane trees will certainly grow in these inhospitable places, they will thrive in water-rich places better.

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Other characteristics of these trees, as the Millers had discovered, are that with leaves as big as dinner plates and lots of molting bark, the area under the tree is impossible to keep clean.  Raking leaves and picking up branches and seed pods become semi-seasonal chores and it was not a lot of fun in the fall after a rain.

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There are streams and rivers in the Eastern U.S., like the Jackson River in Virginia, where the trees seem to lean into the stream, blocking out other smaller trees and tangling root systems, so that there is little light for any competing plant.  They get so greedy that they literally fall into the river, washed away downstream with the next big rain storm.  My brother, Ned Hooper, rents a private section of the Jackson River each year for some great fly fishing for trout and bass and red-eye, which spawn below Gathright Dam.  It is difficult to cast a fishing line into parts of the Jackson without snagging on a sycamore branch hanging low over the river or a submerged limb hung up on some rocks.  Sycamores keep the bait and tackle shops busy selling replacement lures and flies from those lost by us faithful fishermen.  The sunken branches become places where the smaller fish hide and we can’t resist casting in their general direction.

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Sycamore Legends

There are legends about the bark of the sycamore and myths as to how and why the bark falls off so profusely, but I was struck by the Egyptian legends about the tree.

Several types of trees appeared in Egyptian mythology. There are several trees which show up in Egyptian mythology, however the sycamore was particularly important to them. Two of the trees, called the “sycamores of turquoise,” stood at the eastern gate of heaven from which the sun emerged each morning.  These sycamores were especially associated with three goddesses: Nut, Hathor and Isis, each of whom was called “Lady of the Sycamore.”  Nut and Hathor were ofent shown to reach out from the tree to offer food and water to the deceased.  And the sycamore was shown with human qualities, when it offered arms of sustenance to the dead.  In the drawing shown below, the deceased Egyptian is suckled by a sycamore tree.[A]

 tree in egypt

The sycamore tree, which is mentioned in ancient hieroglyphics, has been interpreted to relate to a specific and particularly old tree that once stood to the south of the Temple of Ptah at Memphis during the “Old Kingdom.”   Historically the sycamore is the only native tree which grows to a useful size and sturdiness in Egypt.  It needs water, but it could survive with deep roots even along the edge of the desert, which would have also placed it near or in the necropolises.[B]

 

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The Buttonwood Agreement

On the occasion of my business partner’s birthday in 2011, I wanted to buy him a Buttonwood Tree.  I had heard tales that the final agreement terms for the New York Stock Exchange were created under the shade of a buttonwood tree.  Since my partner had created our investment fund under the Douglas Fir of Southwest Washington, I thought it would be fitting to also plant a small tree that was supposed to be growing at the site of the oldest stock exchange in the United States. Called the “Buttonwood Agreement,” a famous document was signed by members of what was to become the NYSE. The agreement was signed when they gathered at 68 Wall Street, in New York City.  The year was 1792.[2]

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Depiction of Traders under the Buttonwood Tree [3]

I did some research on Buttonwood trees and could not find any source in Portland or Southwest Washington.  I went to our local nursery and made an appointment with the resident tree expert.  He told me that he could special order a California Plane tree, which he said was exactly the same thing as a Buttonwood, except that it would grow better in the Northwest than other species.  Under his breath he asked, “You know it is just a sycamore tree, don’t you?” I did not.  To my delight I found a suitable sycamore sapling, without much difficulty, put it the back of my car and drove it to my partner’s office.  His wife planted the sycamore a few days later in a nice sunny spot among the evergreens.  I gave him a scroll, where I had written the story of the Buttonwood Agreement and the tree.  He seemed pleased, filed the scroll in his drawer and went back to his stock picking, which was much more to his liking than horticulture or trees any day.

Plane Truth

An American Sycamore is easily spotted and distinguished from other trees by its mottled exfoliating bark, which flakes off in great irregular masses, leaving the surface mottled, and greenish-white, gray and brown near the base of the tree. The bark of all trees has to yield to a growing trunk by stretching, splitting, or infilling.  While all trees stretch and split as they grow, few show the process more openly than the Sycamore. The reason for this growth process is that the bark of the Sycamore is inelastic, and it is incapable of stretching to accommodate the expansion of the wood underneath, so the tree sloughs it off, particularly during its growth phases.

A sycamore can grow to massive proportions, typically reaching up to 98 to 130 ft. high and 4.9 to 6.6 ft. in diameter when grown in deep soils. The largest of the species have been measured to 167 ft., and nearly 13 ft. in diameter. Larger specimens were recorded in historical times.

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The sycamore tree is often divided near the ground into several secondary trunks, very free from branches. Spreading limbs at the top make an irregular, open head. Roots are fibrous. The trunks of large trees are often hollow.

Another peculiarity is the way the leaves grow sticky, green buds. In early August, most trees in general will have—nestled in the axils of their leaves—the tiny forming bud which will produce the leaves of the coming year. The sycamore branch apparently has no such buds. Instead there is an enlargement of the petiole which encloses the bud in a tight-fitting case at the base of the petiole.

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Famous Sycamores in American History

I did some additional research on my own about sycamores and found them to be an older and more common tree than I had realized.  In general “street mythology,” the sycamore tree symbolizes protection, divinity, eternity and strength.  The roots penetrate deep into the soil, making them hard to knock down in storms.  They also have those stark white branches in winter, which look as if they are reaching up into the heavens. References to sycamores and Plane trees appear in the Egyptian “Book of the Dead” and the Bible.

There are a lot of famous sycamores in the Eastern US.  In 1770, near the junction of the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers, George Washington recorded in his journal a sycamore measuring 45 feet in circumference at 3 feet above the ground.  Another famous American Sycamore, named the Lafayette Sycamore, also has its connection with our first President.  The Lafayette Sycamore towers over Brandywine Battlefield Park in Southeastern Pennsylvania.  Legend has it that that tree was already 168 years old, when Generals Washington and Lafayette sought sheltered under it along with the troops at the Battle of Brandywine in 1777.

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The Lafayette Sycamore, Brandywine, PA

Another symbol of America is the uprooted tree at Ground Zero in New York City.  This is the sight of the fallen twin towers, not far from Wall Street, where the Buttonwood agreement had been signed.  American artist and citizens transformed the tree roots, those subterranean legs of life, into an indelible image of protection, hope and strength in the face of terrorism. So much is going on below the surface of the earth with these magnificent trees as they grow into the bedrock in search of water and life.

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Sycamore at Ground Zero in NYC

Another famous tree is the Pinchot Sycamore[4] which is a large American sycamore in Simsbury, Connecticut.  It is believed to be the largest tree in the state.  Its measurements, according to the Connecticut Botanical Society, were recorded in 2011 to be almost 28 ft. around and 104 ft. tall, with an average canopy diameter of 147 ft.  The sycamore is possibly over 300 years old.  The tree was named in honor of Gifford Pinchot, who was an influential conservationist and Connecticut resident.  As my uncle Alex Barton would say, with the appropriate pause and deference, “He was also a Yale man.” Pinchot, who was the first Chief of the US Forest Service, served from 1905 until he was fired in 1910.  Nonetheless, he went on to serve two terms as Governor of Pennsylvania (1923-1927 and 1931-1935), and Pinchot is heralded at the father of the forestry movement, coining the term conservation ethic as it applied to natural resources.[5]

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The Pinchot Sycamore (center) with bridge over the Farmington River (right)

Zaccheus Climbs a Sycamore Tree

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Luke 19:1-10

As I kept searching, I came across a reference to Sycamores in the Gospel of Luke.  The tree is included in the story of a dishonest tax collector by the name of Zaccheus.  I heard echoes of the Prodigal Son in Zaccheus’ story (also in the Gospel of Luke 15: 11-32) and also the echoes of the “good shepherd” in search for “that which was lost.”  The message that Jesus sends to Zaccheus offers me the great news of salvation, even for us sinners who are honest tax payers.  The story is below:

[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through.  And there was a man called by the name of Zaccheus; he was a chief tax collector and he was rich. Zaccheus was trying to see who Jesus was, and was unable because of the crowd, for he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree in order to see Him, for He was about to pass through that way. When Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zaccheus, hurry and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” And he hurried and came down and received Him gladly. When they saw it, they all began to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” Zaccheus stopped and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much.” And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.”

What do you hear in the story above?

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Bole of an aged Platanus, in Trsteno, near Dubrovnik, Croatia

Another reference to Sycamores in the bible comes from the book of Sirach (24:12-14):

“I have struck root among the glorious people, in the portion of the Lord, his heritage.  Like a Cedar of Lebanon I am raised aloft, like a Cypress on Mount Hermon, like a Palm tree in Engedi, like a Rosebush in Jericho, like a fair Olive tree in the field, like a Plane tree growing beside the water…

Echoing Luke (6:44): Every tree is known by its own fruit.

“Facts: just the facts!” [6]

The characteristic bark, leaves, flowers, stamens, pistil and fruit of an American Sycamore:

  • Bark: Dark reddish brown, broken into oblong plate-like scales; higher on the tree, it is smooth and light gray; separates freely into thin plates which peel off and leave the surface pale yellow, or white, or greenish. Branchlets at first pale green, coated with thick pale tomentum, later dark green and smooth, finally become light gray or light reddish brown.

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  • Wood: Light brown, tinged with red; heavy, weak, difficult to split. Largely used for furniture and interior finish of houses, butcher’s blocks. Sp. gr., 0.5678; weight of cu. ft., 35.39 lbs.
  • Winter buds: Large, stinky, sticky, green, and three-scaled, they form in summer within the petiole of the full grown leaf. The inner scales enlarge with the growing shake. There is no terminal bud.

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  • Leaves: Alternate, palmately nerved, broadly-ovate or orbicular, four to nine inches long, truncate or cordate or wedge-shaped at base, decurrent on the petiole. Three to five-lobed by broad shallow sinuses rounded in the bottom; lobes acuminate, toothed, or entire, or undulate. They come out of the bud plicate, pale green coated with pale tomentum; when full grown are bright yellow green above, paler beneath. In autumn they turn brown and wither before falling. Petioles long, abruptly enlarged at base and inclosing the buds. Stipules with spreading, toothed borders, conspicuous on young shoots, caducous.
  • Flowers: May, with the leaves; monoecious, borne in dense heads. Staminate and pistillate heads on separate peduncles. Staminate heads dark red, on axillary peduncles; pistillate heads light green tinged with red, on longer terminal peduncles. Calyx of staminate flowers three to six tiny scale-like sepals, slightly united at the base, half as long as the pointed petals. Of pistillate flowers three to six, usually four, rounded sepals, much shorter than the acute petals. Corolla of three to six thin scale-like petals.
  • Stamens: In staminate flowers as many of the divisions of the calyx and opposite to them; filaments short; anthers elongated, two-celled; cells opening by lateral slits; connectives hairy.
  • Pistil: Ovary superior, one-celled, sessile, ovate-oblong, surrounded at base by long, jointed, pale hairs; styles long, incurved, red, stigmatic, ovules one or two.

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  • Fruit: Brown heads, solitary or rarely clustered, an inch in diameter, hanging on slender stems three to six inches long; persistent through the winter. These heads are composed of akenes about two-thirds of an inch in length. October. [7]

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What’s the downside?

If the trees are abundant and have value, are there any downsides to having lots of them around? One natural factor against these hearty and strong and durable trees, is that the Sycamore is susceptible to various diseases.  They are known to “catch” a fungal disease, called Plane Anthracnose (Apiognomonia veneta), which kills the leaves in some years: the worse the infection, the more naked the trees.  They seem to have the disease in cold, wet spring weather.  Some of the Oriental hybrids are resistant to this affliction, but it can make the American Sycamore and London Plane trees look like they are about to die.

The trees also can be afflicted with a wilt disease and from mildew, which also fails to kill the trees, but again make them look pretty poor and God-forsaken.

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The young leaf shoots are also the favorite food of an insect known as the Sycamore Leaf Beetle (Neochlamisus platani). The adult beetle is camouflaged against the bark of the tree, while the adults and larvae feed on the new foliage.  Heavy infestations of these pests can dramatically reduce the number of leaves on the tree, but once again do not seem to kill the host tree. Like our pride, gardeners have our collective “green-thumb-egos in a sling” when the ornamental value of our prized tree is damaged. [8] The sooner we rid the tree of the nasty beetles, the better.

bird in tree

What are they good for?

“Birds singing in the Sycamore Tree.  Dream a little dream of me.” 

As sung by Ella Fitzgerald

The utilitarian side of me wants to know what Sycamores are good for.  Besides shade and strength and good hiding places for fish, the trees have been prized in for their branches for timber.  The trunks seem to hollow out over the years, so the wood is not regarded as reliable for construction purposes, which is a pity.  Recently though, with the popularity of biomass energy programs, the sycamore’s “trashiness” has become a hot commodity.  They grow relatively quickly in warm and moist parts of the country (refer back to the map above), so they can be harvested and replaced with ease.  The trunks, limbs and branches of the trees also create the habitat for a lot of wildlife; so they provide a rich nesting zone for animals “in the wild.”  More than a few Bald Eagles, Wood Ducks and squirrels have been found nesting in stately Sycamores.

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In Asian cultures, the sycamore and plane trees have some minor medicinal uses, but I do not understand the specific herbal or medicinal purposes. The Oriental Plane tree is prized in gardens for its visual beauty and ornamental appeal.

So?

So what, you ask?  I suggest you go out and find your own special tree.  Talk to an expert about the hidden treasure of that species.  Open a window into its history, its significance to you, and its uses in the world.  And most of all, discover the pleasure that the tree brings you, whether that is a place where you live or vacation.  Have fun marveling at God’s arborial creations.

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[2] Cited in many texts, including Wikipedia, this is common knowledge by brokers in the stock trading business.

[6] Words of “Joe Friday” on the TV show, Dragnet.

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