Notable Natives: Sycamores - Fast-Growing, Minimal-Maintenance, Good for the Ecosystem
By Su Fiske, Inland Bays Garden Center | Special to the Coastal Point Dec 15, 2022
The sycamore (platanus occidentalis) — also called buttonwood, ghost tree and water beech — is a native to the eastern and central United States. They are a minimal-maintenance and fast-growing shade tree.
Being tough and sturdy, the sycamore tolerates severe weather conditions, pollution, salt and wet soils. They are adaptable and are long-lived (some up to 600 years old). The sycamore grows to over 70 feet high and 50 feet wide, and provides lots of shade with its great canopy of broad leaves. Sycamores are the largest tree in the East.
What I like best about the sycamore is the remarkable bark. The bark appears to be camouflaged. The outer bark stays on the bottom of the trunk is brown to gray, and furrowed. The upper trunk loses bark much the way crepe myrtles do, in thin pieces, which reveal the inner bark. This happens because the outer bark cannot grow as fast as the tree. The inner bark is smooth and dappled with colors of soft white, yellow and gray. The branches are light-colored, so in the fall you can pick this tree out from great distances.
The sycamore leaves (up to 10 inches across) are tolerant of pollution and help to clean our environment. This feature makes them particularly important to our ecosystem, as they can transform pounds of carbon every year. Of course, the larger and more mature the tree, the more oxygen is produced. The leaves are lobed with rough edges.
We utilize sycamores in parks and public gardens. Their flowers have separate male and female flowers (monoecious), which are pollinated by the wind and usually flower March to June. They require full sun (6 hours daily) to partial shade, grow in Zone 4 through 9, prefer alkaline soil or wet soil, but they tolerate clay soil, occasional flooding and road salt. The best time to plant sycamores is in late winter or early in the new year.
Wildlife benefits — The flowers are a source of pollen and nectar for bees and other insects. Birds and small mammals eat the seeds of the Sycamore. They also use this big tree for shelter. The center of the tree hollows out around 200 hundred years old, and serves as dens and shelters for wildlife such as opossums, raccoons, squirrels, swallows and wood ducks. The tree supports about 15 insect species and more leafhoppers than does the native maple.
• Naturalist John James Audubon noted thousands of chimney swifts in a single hollowed sycamore. The mature sycamore tree can transform 26 pounds of carbon dioxide oxygen every year.
• Much like the sugar maple, a sycamore’s sap can be tapped and boiled down into syrup or fermented into wine.
• Native Americans used the inner bark for food and medicinal tonics, and the leaves to wrap bread to bake. They used the limbs in home construction.
• Colonials used the wood for multiple purposes, such as barber poles, barrels, butcher blocks, buttons, cabinets, flooring, saddle trees, veneer and violin backs. Also, dugouts were made from sycamores. While they were building their homes, early settlers used the hollow sycamores as shelter, and the smaller ones were chopped down for cisterns.
• George Washington’s troops took shelter under the 168-year-old sycamore in Brandywine Battlefield Park, Pa. Now it is a symbol of protection and hope for Americans.
• The New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), founded under a sycamore tree, is called the “Buttonwood Agreement.”
Read the article in the Coastal Point here.