Sunday, March 31, 2013

Sycamores, Trees of Wonder

If you were to decide to learn only one tree in your life, I would recommend learning the sycamore (though I don't recommend learning only one tree).
A stately sycamore between our outdoor classroom and playground.

A friend once told me that sycamores are easy to recognize because they are the only tree that wears pants.  A sycamore's upper limbs are white and appear to be uncovered, and its lower trunk is covered with brown, patchy bark - the sycamore's pants.  Sycamore bark consists of three layers: the outer is brown, the middle is greenish and the inner bark is white.  Sometimes you can see all three layers together in a camouflage-like pattern.  The outer two layers peel off of the upper limbs, leaving bone-like white branches that look spectacular against a blue sky.  Scientists aren't sure why the upper bark peels off, but some people think it falls off to prevent vines from being able to grow up into the treetops. 

Sycamores tend to grow near water, and since their white branches are visible from a distance, they are useful for finding water if you are ever lost in the forest.  Early explorers used them to find water sources across North America, but they used sycamores for lots of other things too.  Sycamores are very fast-growing, so they produce a lot of wood.  Though sycamore wood is twisty, it is extremely strong and light, and Native Americans and settlers both used it to make just about everything you can make out of wood.  Before North American forests were logged, most forests contained trees that were a lot older, therefore they were bigger than trees we have now.  Old sycamores tend to be shockingly enormous compared to other trees, and they are often hollow (here's a medium-sized one, and possibly the world's largest), so sometimes they were used by people as a shelter or to corral animals.
A drift of sycamore seeds and a few pieces of fallen sycamore bark.
The sycamore tree at our school is making a mess right now.  While more northern parts of the country still have snowdrifts, here in Middle Tennessee, we get drifts of sycamore seeds.  Sycamores hold their seed balls (technically fruits) up on their branches all winter, but now the seed balls are dispersing their seeds.  Every ball contains hundreds of wind-dispersed seeds that each have a few feathery hairs to catch the wind.  Some of the seed balls break apart while they are on the tree, and the seeds are dispersed from high in the sky.  Many seed balls fall onto the ground as well.  Mostly the seed balls break apart when they fall off the tree.  The seeds are only loosely-held together, so the seed balls usually smash to smithereens on impact with the ground.  If you're lucky, you may find a whole seed ball, which is exceedingly enjoyable to break apart for yourself.
A sycamore seed ball with a few seeds falling out.
 If you lightly crush the seed ball, you can see how the seeds fit together so tightly. 
A lightly-crushed sycamore seed ball.
Once you have completely crushed the seed ball, look for the hard structure inside.  That structure is the base of where the seeds are produced, and it looks like the strangest type of seed or fruit you've ever seen, but it's neither seed nor fruit, just stem.  Many naturalists have been confused when trying to identify these structures when they find them without the surrounding furry sycamore seeds.
A fully-crushed seed ball.
Soon our sycamore will look very different.  It will be covered with giant plate-sized sycamore leaves, but you will still be able to recognize it by its beautiful white branches.


  1. It's been driving me crazy trying to figure out what this weird orange fluffy stuff is that I keep finding around my new neighborhood... finally I have an answer! Guess I've never lived near sycamore trees before...

  2. In the U.K. the seeds that you show here come from the "Plane tree" all of our Sycamores or Acers have the"helicopter" type of seeds as seen in the images of sycamore trees on google. I"m baffled ! J.C.