Something About a Sycamore

Illustrations by Gary W. Odmark

The few wooded acres on which my wife and I pay property taxes support nearly every kind of tree native to mid-Michigan. Time is drawing near when we will, once again, hire a forester to cruise the timber and mark which oaks, maples, cherry and walnut are candidates for market. One tree that won’t get cut, though, is a solitary sycamore.

No mill wants a sycamore. Although technically a hardwood, the tree’s value is limited to making boxes, crates and sometimes paneling. Sycamores suck up water like a sponge, which makes the pulp stringy and tough to split. Dried for firewood, a sycamore bolt burns as fast as poplar or pine, offering a poor return for the investment of time and work.

There is another reason I won’t cut that lonely sycamore that grows along a small stream and towers above the forest crown a few hundred yards behind our house. It happens to be a personal favorite.

I shot a woodcock under its leafy shade one September afternoon years ago.

A nearby beech is the final resting place for bird dogs that have owned me over the years. Because the German shorthaired pointer, yellow Labrador retriever and pair of English setters buried there have left little room, my sycamore is on the short list for an expanded pet cemetery.

I can’t see my sycamore as I write this due to neighboring foliage crowding out the view. In March, however, it stood tall and proud, twisty branches looking like a remnant from Middle Earth, scale-like shards of light- and dark-colored bark resembling a giraffe’s hide.

The American sycamore (Plantanus occidentalis), after all, is different than other native trees. Fast growing, in only 20 years it can reach 100 feet or more. A 100-year-old sycamore can be four to six feet in diameter. As the tree ages, its girth increases with new bark replacing old, which flakes away higher up the trunk and along the thickening branches. This phenomenon gives the tree that strange piebald look and possibly its common name suggesting it is unhealthy or sick.

Trees that large take in hundreds, if not thousands of gallons of water to support an extensive root system and a crown that may extend to 75 feet and more. A study of 18 tree species in Los Angeles, two of which were sycamores, proved the sycamores used the most water. The thirsty tree thrives best in eastern and southeastern states when annual rainfall averages 30 to 80 inches. That is why sycamores prefer moist, rich soil, populating lowland areas and lining river banks like soldierly sentinels.

Speaking of soldiers, a giant sycamore reputed to be 168 years old sheltered troops from George Washington’s army during the Battle of Brandywine in 1777. The tree, also called a buttonwood tree, has since come to represent security and hope. In 1793 the document that created the New York Stock Exchange was called the Buttonwood Agreement because it was signed under a Wall Street sycamore.

At more than 100 million years, Platanaceae (plane tree) is among the oldest of all tree families, populating the planet long before the dinosaurs roamed. Individual trees can live for several hundred years. In addition to the American species, naturalists identify the British sycamore and the Middle Eastern sycamore as belonging to the same family.

Besides strength and protection, sycamores symbolize divinity and eternity. In the “Book of the Dead,” for example, the tree represents Egyptian goddesses and is mentioned in the Bible, too. When Jesus’ pilgrimage entered Jerusalem, it was a sycamore that Zacchaeus climbed for a better look.

Years ago, while traveling in southern France, I noted that village fountains were typically located near ancient plane trees, which afforded abundant shade. In the cool evening I liked to visit these timeless watering holes and watch the world go by. Lying on my back on a stone bench, I listened to the soft babble of flowing water and the whisper of wind stirring huge, lobed leaves overhead and wondered if Napoleon’s army — and maybe Caesar’s troops — stopped here to rest, too.

City founders often planted the sycamore along waterways, not only for shade but also for its ability to tolerate pollution. I did not plant the only sycamore on our property. I imagine the spring day that a squirrel buried one of the fruits — a lightweight spiky ball holding seeds for the future — that fell from another tree.

I think about that whenever I wander out back and visit the solitary giant that stands guard over my woods.

Tom Huggler is a Sunfield-based writer whose works have graced more than 100 magazines. He is the author of 20 books, including the Fish Michigan series of mapped guidebooks. Tom was inducted into the Michigan Outdoor Hall of Fame in June 2017 at the Carl T. Johnson Hunting and Fishing Center in Cadillac.

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