Sycamores Get No Respect

 

Sycamore has distinctive bark

Sycamore has distinctive bark

Sycamores: Not Just Another Plane Tree

Sycamore trees are not high on the edible list, unless you’re in need.

Actually, sycamores, Platanus occidentalis (PLAT-uh-nus ock-sih-den-TAY-liss) get a bad rap. Though they grow big and showy, landscapers don’t use them because they can have a lot of tree diseases. Homeowners don’t like them because they shed piles of maple-like leaves and disrupt underground lines. Woodworkers don’t care for the wood because it tends to hold water and twist when it dries. But that is one reason why we like it.

The sycamore is full of drinkable sap, read water when you need it. The sycamore can also provide a maple-like syrup as well, but you’ve have to boil many gallons of it to get syrup or sugar.  Knowing there is always a source of drinkable sap/water nearby has its advantages.

Sycamore seeds

To the forager, or the bushcrafter, another advantage of the sycamore is its light-colored wood can be used to make safe utensils such as wooden spoons, forks or skewers. Historically it was made into boxes to hold food as well as fruit and vegetable baskets.  Other early uses included barber poles, wooden washing machines, lard pails, Saratoga trunks, piano and organ cases, phonograph boxes, and broad paneling in Pullman train cars. It has been used for butcher blocks for many years because it is hard to split, as well as flooring, handles, and pallets. Incidentally, there is a second sycamore of interest but it only grows in California and Mexico, Platanus racemosa. Chunks of its bark can be use for a coffee substitute.

And while it may never come to this, sycamores can grow so large they have hollow trunks and many a settler sought long-term shelter inside a sycamore. It was not uncommon to house a pig to a horse inside a living sycamore. At one time two brothers lived for three years inside the hollow trunk of an American Sycamore. One can believe that given the size of the champion sycamore tree in the United States. It’s in Jeromesville, Ohio, and is nearly 50 feet around at the base (582 inches at 4 1/2 feet high.) It is 129 feet tall and has a crown spread of 105 feet.

Mia Wasilevich using the fragrant sycamore leaves as a wrap to keep lambsquarter seed stuffed rabbit leg moist.

Mia Wasilevich using the fragrant sycamore leaves as a wrap to keep lambsquarter seed stuffed rabbit leg moist.

And just as the tree is human friendly it is kind to animals as well. Sycamore seeds are eaten by some birds including the purple finch, goldfinch, chickadees, and dark-eyed junco. The seeds are also eaten by muskrats, beavers, and squirrels. Hollow sycamores can provide dens for black bear. Cavity nesting birds that call the sycamore home include the barred owl, eastern screech-owl, great crested flycatcher, chimney swift, and the wood duck. In fact one bird uses the tree rather cleverly.

If you look at a sycamore of any size you will often see a line of little holes in the bark, made by the Sapsucker. And while the Sapsucker likes sweet sap it has an ulterior motive. After the bird flies away insects come to feed on the sugary sap. The bird then returns and eats he bugs. Clever bird. Hummingbirds also eat the seeping sap.

The naming of the sycamore is a rather complex affair. Sycamore is from two Greek words siga and mora which  mean “Fig and mulberry.”  First there was a fig tree in the Middle East called Ficus sycomorus, the Sycomore Fig of Bible fame. The American sycamore’s leafs and round seeds were reminiscent of the Sycomore Fig, thus it was called Sycamore. It’s botanical name is a combination of Greek and Dead Latin.  Planatos (plane) was a Greek name for the tree, and occidentalis means “of the west” to separate it from similar European trees. Greeks also call the tree Daphne, a strange little word. Depending upon the accent in Greek it can be the tree and an area of Athens that once had an insane asylum, and where we get the word “daffy” in English. Racemosa means cluster and refers to the seed cluster of the California sycamore.

Also, according to Herodotus, the Greeks owed some of their success to the charm of the plane tree. In 480 BC, invading Persian King Xerxes camped his army in a grove of those trees. The king was so enamored by them that he put off his march for a few days. This delay helped lose Xerxes the war, and Greece went on to build the Athenian Empire.

The American sycamore is sometimes confused with the several other trees in the same family that are similar in appearance. If the tree has single seed pod, it is the sycamore. If there are two seed pods together, it’s a London planetree. If there are 3-5 seed pods, it is an Oriental planetree which has the seed pods hanging like beads. Those seed pods when dry have a coating of tiny hairs and can irritate air passages, so handle them carefully. However, that same hair makes excellent tinder.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: Tall tree resembling a maple with mottled bark, leaves palmate, large, eight inches wide and long or more, with three lobes, glossy green on top, paler underneath. Non-edible fruit, a brown cluster.

TIME OF YEAR: Sap availability depends on location, year round in warm areas.

ENVIRONMENT: Grows best on sandy loams or loam with a good supply of ground water, typically on the edges of lakes and streams. Found in eastern North America, except the California Sycamore.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: For the American sycamore, the occidentalis, sap, tap like a maple. For the California Sycamore, the Racemosa, put chips of the bark and root in hot water.

 

HERB BLURB

Native Americans used Platanus occidentalis for a variety of medicinal purposes, including cold and cough remedies, as well as dietary, dermatological, gynecological, respiratory, and gastrointestinal aids

 

{ 48 comments… add one }
  • VICTORIA RUIZ January 21, 2013, 8:49 pm

    Thanks, you answered all my questions

    Reply
  • Theron Cooper February 16, 2013, 7:24 pm

    Hey,

    Just wanted to thank you for the informative web site and the excellent information you have shared. It has helped me identify this tree and also understand some of it’s historic uses.

    Kind Regards,
    Theron Cooper

    Reply
  • Deborah May 23, 2013, 6:20 pm

    Thanks for showing love to Sycamore! For some reason it gets very little respect, considering its great size. Even in a standard tree field guide there is barely more than a passage.

    Reply
  • Ben December 20, 2013, 2:34 pm

    My dog eats sycamore bark and small twigs. Is he trying to tell me something?

    Reply
  • Ben December 21, 2013, 12:43 pm

    Other than recharging his “barker” what nutritional value or harm does this do if any?

    Reply
  • Breandán Mac Séarraigh June 13, 2014, 4:11 pm

    That is a sort of plane tree (eastern plane), not sycamore as we know it in Ireland anyway. Real sycamore is Acer pseudoplatanus.

    Reply
    • Green Deane June 13, 2014, 5:59 pm

      Here an Acer is called a maple not a sycamore.

      Reply
  • John June 20, 2014, 10:41 am

    I once read that sycamores create space for themselves by exuding a substance into the ground that is poisonous to other kinds of trees. True or false? If true, do you know how long the poison lasts after the sycamore dies?

    Reply
    • Green Deane July 7, 2014, 4:49 pm

      I have no reference to that. I know other trees do, such as the Black Walnut.

      Reply
      • Julia April 7, 2017, 11:57 pm

        I have a theory that Sycamore trees might actually have photosynthesis cells not only on the top of their leaves but also on the bottom of their leaves. If you look at a mature mottled tree you will notice that the majority of them have the lightest color where the sun hits the bark; this sunlight could be reflected back up to the bottom of the leaves allowing faster growth(if there really are photosynthesis cells on the bottom). Also one can often notice that if other Sycamore trees are nearby the mottling appears to possibly project more light toward the others. But this isn’t the case when there are other tree species present.

        Reply
  • diane July 27, 2014, 10:08 pm

    I heard it was unsafe to use sycamore wood for grilling, is that true?

    Reply
    • Green Deane July 27, 2014, 10:15 pm

      No. Sycamore wood is inert safe even for food bowls and the like.

      Reply
  • Matthew October 27, 2014, 12:23 am

    is it safe to drink the sap of the london planetree and oriental planetree

    Reply
    • Green Deane October 27, 2014, 1:24 pm

      If they are of the genus Platanus yes.

      Reply
  • Jessie B December 16, 2014, 2:53 pm

    I too was taken aback at the picture of what I, as a European, know as a plane tree. Dean, I’m sure you have lots of overseas readers who might be confused by this particular issue. I read very recently on the flutrackers website (which covers all manner of illnesses) that 100 horses had died in Ireland from eating (winged) sycamore seeds (Acer pseudoplatanus), which I see in ‘Botanica’s Trees and Shrubs’ is known in the US as the Sycamore Maple.

    Reply
    • Green Deane December 16, 2014, 4:50 pm

      Yes, in Europe it is called the Plane’s tree and in Greek it is like the girl’s name Daphane except it is said daf-ah-KNEEE… it just crossed my mind not to say to some one named Daphane “oh, your name means plain….” Common names aside Maples are in the Acer genus whereas the Sycamore is Platanus.

      Reply
  • Carole December 17, 2014, 11:13 pm

    To me, it looks like Longfellow has just removed his hat. His hair looks a bit sweaty and mashed down. Nice article, you’ll have my mind wandering each time I see an old photo.

    Reply
  • eswari December 21, 2014, 2:36 am

    Thanks Dean, Great writeup. Love all trees.

    Reply
  • ali April 12, 2015, 4:16 am

    با سلام مطالب ارزنده اي بود من فوق ليسانس جنگلداري دارم ودر اداره منابع طبيعي شاهرود شاغل هستم با تشكر

    Reply
    • Green Deane April 12, 2015, 6:19 pm

      Bing translates that as: Hello my valuable content was Ms. forestry and natural resource management, I’m employed anymore thanks

      Reply
      • Angela September 20, 2015, 1:34 am

        I use this one for translations. Seems to get it a bit closer to what people are trying to say I think. translate.google.com

        This is what it came up with for what was said there.
        “Hey valuable content I have a master’s degree in forestry, natural resource management’m working anymore, thanks”

        Reply
  • kori nevarez May 19, 2015, 1:28 pm

    My California Sycamore is dropping little red berries all over my driveway. I’ve seen the birds eating them and last night my big dogs started licking them up like candy and running around playing. I read that the bark can be boiled and used as a coffee substitute, so I’m wondering if the berries have stimulant properties like coffe beans. Also, do you know if the berries are poisonous to dogs? Mine havent keeled over yet, but want to check anyway.

    Reply
  • Lori Bright June 20, 2015, 11:41 pm

    I have a huge Sycamore in my back yard and I have three little pug dogs that think it is delicious! Especially the hard marble like centers of the seed balls, they are their favorite treat! They forage for them constantly! I gather a couple of bags full and save them for winter time treats to hand out!

    Reply
  • Mike Gallagher July 13, 2015, 3:22 pm

    Ode To A Sycamore

    Where were the sycamores in my youth

    So rigid and stark they now stand out
    alone or in small groups

    From where did they come so suddenly,
    white and tan, blotched and silent, like sentinels along a street

    Planted by some long ago act of God much alike themselves
    quiet, bold, different
    misplaced in the orderly flocks of oaks and maples
    filled with grace, reaching towards the heavens,
    gathering whatever light they could rob
    from one another in a fight for photosynthetic dominance.

    Leaves rattling in the breeze to somehow make us aware of their presence
    much unlike the hush whisper of the rest of the crowd.

    Limbs bent and cocked as arms and fingers racked with arthritis
    unable to be released from a postmortem pose.

    Now only in secret places are they noticed,
    starkly different from the rest they stand
    as the paddle dipped and pulled along the Paw Paw
    so silently with only a ripple to disturb the scene.

    Sunlight slipping through the canopy above highlighting them in a way that they could not be ignored by even the most oblivious.

    Their trunks, tapered and perfectly formed bursting upward without the scars worn by their city brothers and sisters.

    Reply
    • michelle a July 20, 2016, 2:32 pm

      author?

      Reply
  • Bruce September 21, 2015, 10:38 am

    Of all the virtues of this magnificent tree, no one mentioned the wonderful scent they give off.

    Searching the internet for other who notice this scent also yields very slim results. A pity…

    Reply
  • Nicolas jean January 8, 2016, 3:45 pm

    Question could ne possible eat the seeds from the American sycamore pods? i am trying to find new seeds to harvest in my neighborhood to make flower.

    Reply
    • Green Deane January 8, 2016, 5:02 pm

      I’ve never heard of anyone eating the tiny seeds. I doubt they are toxic but probably not worth the effort.

      Reply
  • Emrah Gunduz January 22, 2016, 6:53 am

    Thank you for the information you have been providing for the ones who seek the truth in nature.

    Peace and love from Izmir, Turkey.

    Reply
  • Ethobling July 23, 2016, 6:46 pm

    You can also use the bark as a REALLY good fire starter. Found that out a few years ago when I was into playing with fire more 😉

    Reply
  • debbie August 30, 2016, 11:55 am

    I have been told that the leaves of the sycamore are used for pain relief and have helped arthritis sufferers.
    Is this a recognised property?

    Reply
  • Donal O'Brien September 24, 2016, 5:13 pm

    Excellent post. Is the samara or seed of Acer pseudoplatanus safe for people to eat as a snack? I have read that it is on some websites but others report it is toxic for horses. If not is there any maple trees trees that produce seeds poisonous to people?

    Reply
    • Green Deane September 26, 2016, 7:16 pm

      There’s an acid in some maples leaves — red maple for example — that are toxic to horses. I have not read of any toxicity in humans.

      Reply
  • Katherine Hauswirth October 9, 2016, 10:27 am

    I have a soft spot for sycamores. Thank you for giving them some love!

    Reply
  • tommie velez December 6, 2016, 6:30 am

    Lol, I like how no one mentions that they spelled ‘plain’ as ‘plane’ in the title XD

    Reply
    • tommie velez December 6, 2016, 6:34 am

      Oh no… I just read the article and there are so many spelling mistakes. Please people, just use MSWord or even Grammarly. And maybe add your own favicon instead of the default HostGator one.

      Reply
      • Green Deane December 6, 2016, 6:58 pm

        Please, what do you find wrong in the article?

        Reply
    • Green Deane December 6, 2016, 6:57 pm

      The Sycamore is the Plane Tree, not Plain Tree.

      Reply
    • Eric February 19, 2017, 10:12 am

      Sycamores are also called Plane trees.

      Reply
    • Dave March 6, 2017, 12:53 pm

      That’s because it is a play on words. Sycamore is a member of the Plane Tree family I think.

      Reply
  • Julieta December 14, 2016, 8:51 am

    I am allergic to the leaves, as they have hairs on the underside which easily come off when touching the leaves or moving them around. Am I the only one or is it common? I have to approach the trees carefully when I collect insects from them, avoiding shaking branches.

    Reply
  • Nancy December 27, 2016, 11:26 am

    We have two huge Sycamores across the street from our house. We have had a really mild winter this year and the trees are just now dropping their leaves…it is Christmas. We have noticed tiny droplets of sap on our windshields that smear when rubbed. Is this something from the sycamores or is it coming from another tree. I am allergic to Sycamores but the last several years have been exceptionally hard for my allergies as we have had very mild winters. Any info would be appreciated.

    Reply
  • raincrow January 22, 2017, 12:19 pm

    In the southeast US, Sycamores are hosts to Tussock Moth caterpillars, which can appear by the thousands in early Fall. The hairs on these caterpillars are irritant and neurotoxic to dogs who may contact them while sniffing around on the ground. Like the fuzz on the sycamore leaves, these hairs cause intense itching and rashes on humans. If one should fall from the tree onto your neck or down your back, you’re in for some hellatious suffering.

    Reply
  • Ben Glass March 6, 2017, 9:34 am

    My neighbor is trimming his Sycamore Tree. He has given me most of the medium sized limbs. I plan on letting the wood dry until next fall, winter. We have friends over to grill hotdogs when the weather turns cool. My question is, Is dried sycamore wood acceptable to grill hod dogs over?

    Reply
    • Green Deane March 8, 2017, 6:38 am

      Thanks for writing. In the article I mention that. Sycamore wood is inert and can be used for cooking, skewers, bowls et cetera.

      Reply

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