Plant Guide > Trees > Sycamores > Buttonwood Sycamore Tree

Buttonwood Sycamore Tree

Buttonwood Sycamore TreeSycamore, Buttonwood, American Plane Tree (Platanus occidentalis, Linn.)-A large, stately tree, 75 to 150 feet high, with tall trunk and loose, broad head and mottled green and white limbs. Bark dark reddish brown on trunk, breaking into small scaly plates; smooth and thin on branches, olive green, flaking off in irregular plates, exposing whitish inner bark. Wood light reddish brown, hard, heavy, with prominent satiny pith rays. Buds conical, with hood-like scales, covered by hollow base of leaf stalk, and encircled by a single leaf scar.

Leaves deciduous, alternate, simple, 5 to 6 inches long, 7 to 9 inches broad, 3 to 5 lobed, with broad, shallow sinuses and wavy-toothed lobes; yellow green above, paler beneath, and fuzzy on veins; yellow in autumn and papery; petiole short, with hollow, dilated base; stipules, a sheath, tubular, flaring into ruffle-like border. Flowers, May, monoecious, in globular heads on flexible stems; staminate axillary, deep red; pistillate terminal, pale green tinged with red, with long stems.

Fruit, dry pendulous balls, solitary or rarely two on a single peduncle, 1 inch in diameter, made of a close-set, pointed akenes. Preferred habitat, borders of streams and rich bottom lands. Distribution, southern Maine to north shore of Lake Ontario; west to Minnesota and Nebraska; south to Florida and Texas. Uses: Excellent shade and ornamental tree, especially in cities and towns. Wood is used for furniture and inside woodwork of houses; also for butchers' blocks and tobacco boxes.

The "hoary antlered sycamore" in our damp woods is a tree that the stranger will never forget after his first introduction to it. There is only this one native tree with such strange, crazy patchwork on its branches. These patterns in dull olives and dingy white show themselves from any reasonable distance in winter, and the grey balls dangling from the twigs are another sure means of identification. In the summertime the thickest foliage never quite conceals the scarred trunk and excoriated branches, splotched as if with whitewash to the utmost twigs.

Moulting is a continuous performance during the buttonwoods' growing sea-son. Even in winter flakes of bark maybe picked upon the snow blanket that protects the roots. This tree seems utterly lacking in the power to stretch its bark fibres and fill in the chinks to fit the growing limbs. Instead, with the first rift sycamore bark loosens separates, and lets go, leaving only the inner layers between the tender cambium and the cold outdoors. It is the sycamore's way.

Have you ever looked out of a car window at the sycamores and white birches that streak the dull winter woods with light? It is a strange sight, calculated to stir the dullest imagination. The birches stand together, and keep each other in countenance. They do not seem to mind being looked at, but flaunt their tattered ribbons of bark without self-consciousness. The sycamores stand alone, as a rule.

Except in young trees, the limbs are tortuous, reaching out in many directions without much regard for symmetry. One often stands on the verge of a stream, and leans far out as if contemplating a plunge. The rush of the train makes of these solitary trees pallid, spectral figures, that dart past the windows-hunted outcasts, lepers in the tree community, fleeing before invisible pursuers. It is a satisfaction to find each tree back in its place when we come again that way.

Quite a different tree from the distressed-looking specimen in colder New England is the buttonwood of more congenial soil and clime-a stalwart, large-limbed tree of colossal trunk, which lifts its head high above its forest neighbours, and shelters great oaks and maples under its protecting arms. The weird, irregular top is singularly free from small branches, but in summer the broad leaves are so disposed as to soften the harsh lines. The open-boughed buttonwoods of the little city of Worcester, Massachusetts, noted for their stately beauty early in the century just finished, well illustrate this kindly ministry of the leaves.

The buds of the sycamore deserve our close attention in the autumn. Leaves are fading; at first glance we note that there are no buds in their angles. How is next year's growth provided for? Look again! The leaf loosens in your hand and lets go its hold on the twig. Its stem ends in a hollow cone. There on the twig is a plump bud that grew all summer under the protecting base of that leaf. Two or three little hoods each bud wears to protect it, now the leaf is gone. The outer one is of leathery texture, without seams, and the delicate inner ones fit close, so there is no danger. The leaf never abandons its ward until it is safe to do so.

The little frilled sheathing stipules are well worth looking for on young shoots of the sycamore in spring. So are the balls that hang in the treetop, first in May as the two separate kinds of flower heads; later when the surviving pistillate ones change to hard brown seed balls, banging against neighbouring limbs until the flexible stems are worn to shreds, and the pointed seeds are loosened and wafted away on their hairy parachutes. Most of the seeds die, of course, but Nature sees to it that here and there a sycamore seed falls on good ground; and a young sapling lifts its broad palms next year above the spot.

Some people object to sycamores because the leaves as they unfold cast off their fuzzy covering of branched hairs, which are irritating to the mucous membrane of the eyes and throat. Most of us have never heard of this trouble before, and have lived comfortably in the neighbourhood of sycamore trees for years. Happily, this moulting period of the leaves is very brief. A more serious obstacle to the planting of these trees is their susceptibility to a fungous disease. The young leaves often look scorched immediately upon opening. A second crop of inferior size and vigour may replace them. Examine an affected leaf, and you find black specks along the veins. These are the outward signs of inward trouble, which is too deep-seated to be reached by any fungicidal spray. Let us hope that time will show a cure, for the sycamore is one of the trees that grows rapidly and flourishes amid the dust and smoke of city streets. How few kinds of trees there are, after all, that stand by to shelter and encourage city-bound humanity through the hot summer days, making fresh green oases in burning brick-and-mortar deserts!