A number of Sycamore trees
can be seen along the east bank of the Kentucky River all
along our nature trail and around the area of the beaver
dam/pond. The Sycamore is easy to spot the
brown peeling bark showing a white trunk and the very large
American Plane Tree, Buttonwood,
Bark: Dark reddish brown, broken into oblong plate-like scales; higher on the tree, it is smooth and light gray;
separates freely into thin plates which
peel off and leave the surface pale
yellow, or white, or greenish.
Branchlets at first pale green, coated
with thick pale tomentum, later dark
green and smooth, finally become light
gray or light reddish brown.
Wood: Light brown, tinged with red;
heavy, weak, difficult to split. Largely
used for furniture and interior finish
of houses, butcher's blocks. Sp. gr.,
0.5678; weight of cu. ft., 35.39 lbs.
Winter buds: Large, stinky, sticky,
green, and three-scaled, they form in
summer within the petiole of the full
grown leaf. The inner scales enlarge
with the growing shake. There is no
Leaves: Alternate, palmately nerved,
broadly-ovate or orbicular, four to nine
inches long, truncate or cordate or
wedge-shaped at base, decurrent on the
petiole. Three to five-lobed by broad
shallow sinuses rounded in the bottom;
lobes acuminate, toothed, or entire, or
undulate. They come out of the bud
plicate, pale green coated with pale
tomentum; when full grown are bright
yellow green above, paler beneath. In
autumn they turn brown and wither before
falling. Petioles long, abruptly
enlarged at base and inclosing the buds.
Stipules with spreading, toothed
borders, conspicuous on young shoots,
Flowers: May, with the leaves;
monoecious, borne in dense heads.
Staminate and pistillate heads on
separate peduncles. Staminate heads dark
red, on axillary peduncles; pistillate
heads light green tinged with red, on
longer terminal peduncles. Calyx of
staminate flowers three to six tiny
scale-like sepals, slightly united at
the base, half as long as the pointed
petals. Of pistillate flowers three to
six, usually four, rounded sepals, much
shorter than the acute petals. Corolla
of three to six thin scale-like petals.
Stamens: In staminate flowers as
many of the divisions of the calyx and
opposite to them; filaments short;
anthers elongated, two-celled; cells
opening by lateral slits; connectives
Pistil: Ovary superior, one-celled,
sessile, ovate-oblong, surrounded at
base by long, jointed, pale hairs;
styles long, incurved, red, stigmatic,
ovules one or two.
Fruit: Brown heads, solitary or
rarely clustered, an inch in diameter,
hanging on slender stems three to six
inches long; persistent through the
winter. These heads are composed of
akenes about two-thirds of an inch in
An American sycamore tree is easily
recognized by its mottled exfoliating bark.
The bark of all trees has to yield to a growing trunk; in the case of trees such as
the Silver Maple and the Shagbark Hickory
the process is not hidden, but the Sycamore
shows the process of exfoliation more openly
than any other tree. The bark of the trunk
and larger limbs flakes off in great
irregular masses, leaving the surface
mottled, and greenish-white, gray and brown.
Sometimes the smaller limbs look as if
whitewashed. The explanation is found in the
rigid texture of the bark tissue, which
lacks the elasticity common to the bark of
other trees, so it is incapable of
stretching to accommodate the growth of the
wood underneath and the tree sloughs it off.
A sycamore can grow to massive proportions,
typically reaching up to 30 to 40 meters (aprox.
98' to 131') high and 1.5 to 2 meters (4'11"
to 6'6") in diameter when grown in deep
soils. The largest of the species have been
measured to 51 meters (167'), and nearly 4
meters (about 13'1") in diameter. Historical
specimens over 5 meters (about 16'5") thick
have been reported.
The sycamore tree is often divided near
the ground into several secondary trunks,
very free from branches. Spreading limbs at
the top make an irregular, open head. Roots
are fibrous. The trunks of large trees are
Another peculiarity is the way the leaves
grow sticky, green buds. In early August,
most trees in general will have--nestled in
the axils of their leaves--the tiny forming
bud which will produce the leaves of the
coming year. The sycamore branch apparently
has no such buds. Instead there is an
enlargement of the petiole which encloses
the bud in a tight-fitting case at the base
of the petiole.
The Characteristic Bark of an
The fruit of the sycamore is
a woody ball that ripens in October and
persists through the winter, when it breaks
up into many small seeds.
Each seed has a tuft of
brown hairs that allows the wind to scatter
Sycamores have both male and
female flowers, so every tree has fruits on
Indeed, the sycamore prefers deep river-bottom
soils. In the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys, they may attain
spectacular size - up to 175 feet tall and 14 feet in diameter!
Individual trees may live over 500 years.
The wood of the sycamore is hard and coarse-grained
and often has a flaky appearance, which led to its nickname of
lacewood. It gets used in cabinets, furniture, boxes and barrels.
The native Americans would use the whole trunk of a tree to make
dugout canoes. One of these was reported to have been 65 feet long
and weighed 4 1/2 tons!
The name of the tree derives from the Greek
sukomoros, which is a type of fig tree native to the
Mediterranean. Evidently there is some similarity in the leaves,
and this led to the transference of the name.
In cities, the London Plane Tree (Platanus x
hybrida) is frequently used as a street tree. It is a
cross between the American Sycamore and the Oriental Sycamore (Platanus
orientalis). It is similar in appearance to the sycamore,
but has smaller leaves and its fruits appear in pairs rather than
singly. It is used in preference to the native sycamore because it
is more resistant to a fungus called anthracnose blight (Gnomonia
platani). The fungus attacks young twigs and leaves in
the spring, causing them to die and fall off. Repeated attacks on a
branch produce clusters of small twigs called witches brooms.
Not only raccoons, but also opossums, squirrels and
wood ducks make homes in cavities in the trunk and major branches.
The open branching pattern and sheer size of older sycamores creates
good locations for Great Blue Heron nests. As a long-lived member
of the riparian forest community in the eastern US, sycamores offer
many opportunities to the native animals as well as an eye-catching
accent on the landscape.