Stately sycamores are more beautiful than utilitarian

I always have a hard time choosing my favorite tree, but today I think it must be the sycamore. When I see the winter sunlight shining on their lovely white trunks and arms, all flecked with tan and brown and olive, it’s hard to think of a more beautiful tree.

But it’s not just what I see when I drive by these trees — it’s what I know I would see if I took the time to get out of my car and walk through the sycamores. Sycamores are lovers of creeks and rivers, so where there are sycamores, there are flashes of spotted trout in cool green pools, ranks of deep scarlet cardinal flowers standing on the river bank, quiet V’s made by swimming muskrats and minks, and shrubs full of bright migrating birds. And because these are just about my favorite parts of the world, I think that sycamores must be my favorite trees.

Sycamores are such faithful friends of creeks and rivers that it is easy to trace the course of streams just by following lines of sycamores that snake across the landscape. In the Midwest, where I grew up, twisting lines of sycamores ran behind the straight lines of fields and barns before fading off into the distance, thin veins of wildness running through an otherwise domesticated countryside.

Young sycamore trees as slender and graceful as young girls sprout on the banks and sandbars of streams. Although there is plenty of sunshine and water in these streamside nurseries, there is also deadly peril. Most of these young trees will be killed when the sandbar or stream bank in which they root is washed away by the next flood, or they are battered to pieces by logs or ice driven by these floodwaters.

But for a lucky few of these young sycamores, the stream will shift its course to nibble away at the opposite bank, or redirect its floodwaters into a new channel and leave the young tree alone. Spared from the destructive power of the stream and nourished by the rich soils of its floodplain, sycamores are one of our fastest-growing trees, and can reach an enormous size.

Along with the tulip tree, the sycamore is the largest hardwood in our eastern forests, reaching more than 150 feet tall, with a span of 200 feet and a trunk almost 15 feet in diameter.

Large trees often are hollow, and the early European settlers in the Ohio Valley sometimes set up their first homes in large, hollow sycamores before they built proper houses.

These big, beautiful, spreading sycamores can visually define a landscape, whether the downtown of a small village, the back boundary of a farm field, or a riverbank. And I’m not the only one who has been impressed by sycamores. All across the range of this tree in eastern North America are place names like Sycamore, Ill., Sycamore Creek (of course), and Buttonwood (a reference to the characteristic pom-pom-shaped fruits of the sycamore).

But what good are sycamores? Unlike the sugar maple or apple, they don’t produce food for us. Although sycamore wood is used for butcher blocks, furniture, musical instruments, and other purposes (and the quarter-sawn wood has a beautiful lacy pattern), it isn’t especially valuable or widely used when compared to local timber species such as black cherry, red oak, or black walnut.

So I suppose that the main “good” of sycamores to us is their beauty. And just as I sometimes prefer the useless beauty of poetry to the utility of a dishwasher repair manual, sometimes I prefer beautiful trees to useful ones. And today I think I prefer the sycamore.

Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies | Millbrook, New York 12545 | Tel (845) 677-5343

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