Sycamores: Strange-Looking, Streamside-Loving Trees

Karl VonBerg Monday, 01 January 2018

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The other day I happened to look out a window at work and couldn’t help but say aloud, “That is a huge sycamore tree!” This tree sits just across the Delaware River from our office all year long, but until the leaves fall it’s hidden by other trees. I wanted to get a closer look, so one snowy day I walked down the old railroad bed and snapped this photograph.

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American sycamores are really catchy-looking trees, especially in winter. The cream-colored branches on big trees are immediate giveaways of this species. Location helps too; you’ll typically spot sycamores along the edges of rivers and streams with decent currents (though usually not the lazy, winding ones). Since a lot of roads follow streams, you can often see sycamores while driving as a flash of white amid the brown of other trees.

Sycamores are pretty trees in general, but the older ones are truly sights to behold. They stand in stately grandeur with wide spreading crowns, like this one on a back street in Walton, New York:

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Since it grows near streams, sycamore is a great bank stabilizer. Its roots hold soil in place and help slow streambank erosion. They’re a good choice if you’re planting trees along a fairly fast moving stream or river.

Sycamores produce ball-shaped fruits that have hundreds of seeds on the outside. Once released, these seeds can either float on water or blow in the wind with their dandelion-like plume.

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You can have some fun with the sycamore fruits if you pick them in the fall. Dye them with food coloring or non-toxic tempera paint and then hang them from ribbons to make decorations. You can also glue them together to make a wreath.

Sycamore fruits and seeds are loved by several kinds of birds, including goldfinches, chickadees, juncos, and purple finches. You can make the fruits even more attractive by rolling them in peanut butter and then in sunflower seeds.

Unfortunately, some sycamores will fall prey to an anthracnose (a fungus) that causes early leaf drop, twisted branch growth, and “witch’s brooming” (many twigs growing out from a common point). If you have a big sycamore and want to protect it from this disease, there are fungicide injections you can give the tree every 3 years that will keep the anthracnose at bay.

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