Along the lovely and historic Route 5 in Enfield, Connecticut is a home that was built in 1782 by John Meacham and was originally intended for use by the church parsons in Enfield. It was called Sycamore Hall for the row of sycamore trees that stood between the house front and Route 5. If you were to drive by today you would see one large, majestic sycamore that still remains. It is quite a tall specimen, well above 60 feet in height although many sycamores may grow to 100 feet or more.
In fact, there is a sycamore in Simsbury, CT, known as the Pinchot Sycamore that stands 112 feet tall and has a circumference of 234 inches. Known for its spreading, crooked branches the Pinchot Sycamore has a diameter of 147 feet. It is at least 200 years old and may be even closer to 300. It was dedicated to Gifford Pinchot, a Connecticut native and conservationist, in 1965.
Meanwhile, back in Enfield, several sycamore saplings were planted in 2010 to replicate the original view of the Parsons House along Route 5. The trees are known as The Gettysburg Sycamores as they are said to be the descendants of the sycamore tree in Pennsylvania that President Abraham Lincoln passed under on his way to and from his delivery of the Gettysburg address.
The American Sycamore, Platanus occidentalis, is one of the most easily identifiable shade trees due to its very unique bark. The tan-gray bark starts off smooth and pale but then begins to peel away in large flakes in mid-Summer. The now-exposed underlying surface can be brown, green or gray and gives the tree an appearance of camouflage.
The sycamore is a deciduous tree with simple alternate leaves that are palmate with three or five lobes. The leaves of the sycamore can often be mistaken for maple leaves but they do not have any of the beautiful fall color that maples have. The foliage of the sycamore may turn yellow but often goes directly to an unattractive brown before dropping. This abscission exposes the buds that have formed within the base of the petiole and that will be next year’s leaves. It is a very unusual arrangement as most buds are formed in the axil (the angle between the leaf and the stem).
My second favorite thing about the sycamore (after its very cool camouflage appearance) is the seed structure. The flowers themselves are tiny and are grouped in crowded ball-shaped structures. The fruit that form next are one-inch balls that go from green to brown and give the sycamore its alternate name of ‘Buttonball Tree’. These brown balls are covered with achenes which are actually individual fruits that each contains a single seed. The achenes that cover the outside of a strawberry are often mistaken for seeds. Other plants that exhibit this tendency are buttercup, buckwheat, cannabis, and maple. The maple tree achene is winged and called a samara. Roses also produce achenes and although the rose hip is considered the fruit it actually contains a few achenes. But unlike the edible strawberries or rose hips, the achene of the sycamore can cause skin irritation and respiratory problems for humans.
The achene of the sycamore has a hair-like structure that allows them to be broadcast in a manner that is referred to as a tumble or diaspora. They can travel very far on the wind or even by floating on water. And like so many other seeds they can also be dispersed by birds and animals which eat them and then pass them out in a new location. Some species that are fond of the sycamore achenes are American Goldfinches, Carolina Chickadees, Purple Finches, Mallards, Beavers, Muskrats, and Gray Squirrels. The beaver also eats the bark of the sycamore and many animals make use of the tree as shelter.
The American Sycamore, as one of the most common shade trees planted in the United States, is a strong and durable specimen that brings much interest to any landscape.
All images by Susan Pelton