Sycamore (Planatus occidentalis) is a very common tree in our area, and easy to find growing along streams and lakes. It is also one of the easier trees to identify in the woods because almost all of its identifying features stand out.
The leaves of sycamore are large, and as broad as they are long, with a big-toothed edge. The leaf also has a fuzzy underside that can be a source of respiratory irritation. The fruit forms in the fall as a cluster of seed forming a perfect brown ball about an inch in diameter, hanging from a long stem and persisting into winter. The balls look like buttons, and in colonial times sycamore was called “buttonwood”. The winter bud on the twigs is dark brown and shaped like a Hershey kiss. The bark is usually what stands out the most to identify the species. The base is usually brown and somewhat blocky, while the upper trunk and branches have a mottled appearance of three colors: brown, green, and pale white. The outer brown bark sloughs off in longish strips, exposing the other two colors and making the bark resemble old scraped off wallpaper. Often white is the predominant color of the upper limbs, and against a bright blue sky has a nice look. At night the white limbs almost glow under a full moon, giving sycamore the nickname “ghost tree”.
In girth, sycamore is the largest hardwood species in North America. Early records show diameters at the base of nearly 15 feet. It’s not uncommon to find 4-5 foot diameter trees, with heights of over 100 feet. Many older sycamores are hollow.
The tree is not used by wildlife to any extent. Finches will feed on the seed, and beaver will eat the inner bark. Humans don’t place a high value on the wood, mainly using it for pallets, railroad ties, and particleboard. Early settlers used large hollow trees to make a storage bin called a “hogs head”. Probably its greatest benefit is soil stabilization along stream banks, thanks to its massive root system.
Sycamore is a popular landscape tree, but can break easily in high winds, and tends to drop a lot of branches. It is related to the European plane tree, which is a popular ornamental. The tree is mentioned in the Bible, but it’s not the same species. The sycamore Zacchaeus climbed up into to get a look at Jesus (Luke 19:2) was a species of fig.