Sycamore: A Sense of Wonder
By Ashley Robbins ’23
LAS 410: Ecotones
Ashley integrates scientific facts with historical and etymological details, local lore, and poetic description into a delightful invitation to the reader to pursue a sense of wonder.
-Dr. Mary Stark
Leaves of the Sycamore are wide and fat. Sycamore’s latin name is Platanus occidentalis. Occidental is Latin for “relating to countries of the West” (North Carolina State University Extension). This is an important distinction, because in historical literature of Southwest Asia (notably the Bible), there are descriptions of “Sycamore” trees. These trees however are not the American Sycamore, they more closely resemble the fig tree (Easton).
The tree I sit under now stands tall, taller than most. It is old and strong. Sycamores often live for over 250 years when left alone (Sullivan). In fact, here where Lake Red Rock is now, once stood a sycamore 500 years old! It was called the Peace Tree and served as a trading post between settlers and Native Americans (Dirks). Even after the Des Moines River Valley was flooded in 1969, it continued to be a monument to the harmony we can all strive for. It stood for many years, jutting out of the water as a beacon and reminder of the history buried deep in murky waters. Boaters would visit the remains of this great giant and it became a landmark part of Lake Red Rock. As the years passed and the tree slowly began to deteriorate, mariners would often stop by the remaining snag on their boats. At times when they feared it was truly the end for the Peace Tree, they would decorate it for its final send-off (Dirks). However, despite the many rises and falls of the lake, it held on. Eventually though, in 2018, it succumbed to the waters surrounding it, and the Peace Tree finally said its goodbye as the remaining stump broke free of withered roots. Contacted by the Army Corp of Engineers, some kind volunteers from the Red Rock Marina dragged it back to their then-flooded parking lot, where it now serves as an educational opportunity for visitors. The Army Corp of Engineers has installed interpretative signage to help illuminate the hidden history that stems from the skeleton of the Peace Tree.
I look up and admire the tree I sit under. Its base is sandy and open, dotted with bark that has fallen as the tree sheds and grows. Sycamores are unique in that their bark peels as they age, revealing a white smooth undercoat. Ashy brown and lightly rippled, the bark covers most of the trunk and mottles the branches above. Where it has peeled away there are layers, an intermediary of soft almost smooth gray, and under that a textured cream like bleached leather. It looks so soft, and it feels soft too, like well-worn deerskin gloves. The outer two layers are rough to the touch but not jagged. They have deep cracks running among them and look like the salt flats of Utah — dry and ready to shatter at any moment.
The leaves of the sycamore are jagged along the edge, with a tri-fold pattern of peaks and valleys very similar to maple leaves. However, they grow much wider and broader than the maples. They also do not sport the same bright fall colors as maples do, often being a mixture of gold and brown as winter comes on. Like all deciduous trees, they lose their leaves in the winter and then bud anew in the spring alongside their wind-pollinated crimson and canary flowers. The tree is monoecious so both male and female flowers grow on the same tree (Aviles, 2014). The males look like a perfectly round berry with a thousand cherry-colored crumbles crusting the surface. The females are deep, vibrant suns, their thousand rays jutting out from the crust. It is these little mini-suns that will eventually turn into a seed pod for the next generation.
Interestingly enough, the spring is also when they drop their seed pods (a.k.a sycamore balls) full of fluffy nutlets waiting to be caught by the wind or taken along with a passing animal. The prickly little balls that dangle from branches in the spring remind me of star orbs, floating through a cosmic realm. They are ready to open up and *puff* *whisp* *poof* their fluffy seedlings off to a galaxy far, far away.
These little nutlets are especially popular with songbirds (bplant.org ) and each prickly pod contains several hundred seedlings, each with the opportunity to create another ode to nature. Though a germination rate of 5-10% (Mitchell) may sound low, if we estimate a sycamore ball has 500 nutlets, this means each seed pod has the potential to create 25-50 trees — extrapolate that to the hundreds of pods on any given tree, and you can quickly see why they are good re-colonizers of land!
In fact, they are quite hardy despite their susceptibility to fungal rot. They have been used in everything from cityscapes to strip mines and are good at tolerating saturated soils (Sullivan). However, they are not so strong when it comes to air pollution and can easily suffer from ozone damage, causing the cells of the foliage to oxidize and break down (Leininger; et all, 2010). This paired with their vulnerability to cankers has lessened their use in cities in recent years (Sullivan).
However, In the summer their broad, dense leaves offer a reprieve from the heat so they are If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.
A spiky sycamore ball falls into my lap. It is like a million pyramids on a small fawn orb, each with a tuft of chestnut brown hair threading out from the tip. I gaze up, leaves sway to the sound of the breeze. Their dappled holes opening up to gray sky beyond. The wind is rough and shoves the branches, like a bully, shaking free the tree’s treasured seed pods. They fall like a spring shower, bouncing lightly off the soft emerald grass as they do.
The American Sycamore, known in the scientific world as Platanus occidentalis is a unique species only found in North America, and mostly within the contiguous United States. Its name is derived from a Latin base, with Greek bits intermixed. Platanus comes from the Greek stem of Platus, meaning “broad” (North Carolina State University Extension). This is a reference to the often still seen in parks and are a tree of choice for native restoration. They take especially well to wetlands but will grow in most soils. I commonly see them dotted throughout the parks near Lake Red Rock and there is a beautifully giant specimen in the town square of Pella too.
An interesting note that comes from their size and tendency to rot from the interior is their ability to be used as a shelter. There is a story that dates back to the mid-1700s in which two brothers, while stationed in North America, deserted the British Army. In their wanderings, they eventually found refuge in a hollow sycamore tree! They lived in that tree for three years, and when one of them got married, the other brother moved out so the newlyweds could have the tree to themselves (Maloof, 2005). What an experience indeed! These massive old-growth trees were also used by passing herders and shepherds as cover from the elements, as well as being popular pantries and roosts for many other animals.
Since the tree has to be fully mature before the “heartwood” tends to rot out, we don’t usually see these massive cavernous structures in our modern day. The general age when a Sycamore hollow is about 200-300 years old (Mitchell). However, with any luck and many generations down the line, there are some very special Sycamores that have been planted with the potential to be preserved for that long.
In 1971, a batch of sycamore seeds (among others) went to the moon on the Apollo 14 mission (Williams). When these seeds returned to Earth, they were planted in two US forests and cultivated until the country’s bicentennial birthday. At this point, they were given to various non-profit entities across the United States. Unfortunately, many of the fates of these “Moon Trees” have been negligently forgotten, but we do know one was planted at the State Capitol in Des Moines (The Nonpareil). Next time you are there, perhaps take a look around and see if you can find it!
The mighty American Sycamore, strong and tall, with wood as cumbersome to work with as the Americans’ reputation for being hard-headed. Despite this coarse-grained, crass wood being difficult, it, like the people of the land it grows in, has found usefulness. From butcher blocks to shipping crates, and even musical instruments, the Sycamore has found its way into many industries. Prior to the industrialization of the country, it was also used for other important staples, like buttons and baskets (Mitchell). In addition, it served as the basis for many homeopathic remedies both by Native Americans and early settlers. It was brewed, pulverized to a poultice, squeezed, sliced, and chewed for everything from stomach ailments to “blood purification” and as a cure for smallpox and tuberculosis among others (Mitchell). It was of course also fermented into wine and if one could collect enough sap (like A LOT), it could be boiled into a syrup.
Perhaps it was the sturdy reliability of this tree that led to it being included in the name of the agreement which founded one of our largest and most important financial institutions, the New York Stock Exchange. It was in 1792 that the Buttonwood Agreement (Buttonwood being a colloquial term for the tree) was signed underneath an American Sycamore (Mitchell). That document would be the beginning of an important economic device that continues to drive not just ours, but financial systems across the globe to this day.
So, with these “facts” and “impressions”, to take as you wander through this world, perhaps you will find your own sense of wonder. Perhaps you too will be encouraged by something you’ve seen or heard to delve deeper into the details of this thing that seeded your curiosity.
American sycamore (platanus occidentalis). bplant.org. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https:/bplant.org/plant/158
Aviles, T. (2014, February 27). American Sycamore. Yale Nature Walk. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://naturewalk.yale.edu/trees/platanaceae/platanus-occidentalis/american-sycamore-29
Carson, R., Kelsh, N., & Lear, L. J. (1998). The sense of wonder. HarperCollins Publishers.
Dirks, S. (n.d.). Peace tree at Lake Red Rock uprooted by rising water levels. KNIA KRLS Radio . Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://www.kniakrls.com/2018/07/04/peace-tree-at-lake-red-rock-uprootedby-rising-water-levels/
Easton, M. G. (n.d.). Sycamore definition and meaning – bible dictionary. biblestudytools.com. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/sycamore/
Janet, S. (2018, March 20). Fire Effects Information System (FEIS) Index of Species Information. Retrieved November 15, 2022, from https://www.fs.usda.gov/database/feis/plants/tree/plaocc/all.html
Leininger, T. D., Solomon, J. D., Wilson, A., Schiff, N. M., & Griffin, E. (2010, October 18). Air pollution and chemical injuries. Sycamore/Air Pollution and Chemical Injuries – Bugwoodwiki. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://wiki.bugwood.org/Archive:Sycamore/Air_Pollution_and_Chemical_Injuries
Maloof, J. (2005). Teaching the trees lessons from the Forest. University of Georgia Press.
Mitchell, G. (n.d.). Sycamore – Indiana native plants. Sycamore. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https:/indiananativeplants.org/images/resources/Gordon%20Mitchell%20Articles/GM_sycamore.pdf
North Carolina State University Extension. (n.d.). Platanus occidentalis. Platanus occidentalis (American Plane Tree, American Sycamore, Buttonball Tree, Buttonwood, Eastern Sycamore, Sycamore) | North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. Retrieved November 29, 2022, from https://plants.ces.ncsuedu/plants/platanus-occidentalis/
Unknown. (1976). Moon seedling part of state’s Arbor Day fete. In The Nonpareil.
Williams, D. (2022, November 1). The Moon Trees. NASA. Retrieved November 15, 2022, from https://nssdcgsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/lunar/moon_tree.html40