The City Naturalist

City Naturalist

Sycamore, London Planetree

Article and Photos by Leslie Day

SYCAMORE TREE (Platanus occidentalis L.) Also called American Planetree and Buttonbush.
Platanus is the classical Greek word for "broad" which describes the leaves, and Platanus is also Latin for "maple leaf", which refers to the resemblance of the leaves to those of maples.

LONDON PLANETREE (Platanus Xacerifolia)

LOCALLY: The massive trees, located just north of the 79th street marina and just south of it (around the playground), and throughout Riverside Park, with mottled camouflage-colored bark, are called Sycamore or Plane Trees. The native American Sycamore can be differentiated from the hybrid London Planetree by looking at the fruit or seedballs which turn brown in the fall and are more visible when the leaves down. The American Sycamore has l seed ball hanging on a long stalk. The London Planetree usually has 2 seedballs hanging on one stalk. The London Planetree, a cross between the Sycamore of the Eastern United States and the Oriental Planetree of southeastern Europe and Asia Minor, is remarkably resistant to air pollution.

DESCRIPTION: 60-l00 feet - huge trunk. One of the largest eastern hardwoods with an enlarged base, massive, straight trunk and large, spreading, often crooked branches forming a broad open crown. Diameter of 2-4 feet.

LEAVES: 4-8" long and wide. Broadly ovate with 3 or 5 shallow broad short pointed lobes. Wavy edges with scattered large teeth. 5 or 3 main veins from notched base. Bright green above, paler beneath. Turning brown in autumn. Leafstalk (petiole) long, stout, covering side bud at enlarged base.

BARK: smooth, whitish and mottled, peeling off in large thin flakes, exposing patches of brown, green, and gray. Tree grows so large that it has to shed it's bark almost continuously as it is growing. Bark actually flakes off. In 1948, Donald Peattie wrote "By the beautiful bright smooth bark the Sycamore is known as far off as the color can be descried; it shines through the tops of the forest even in the depth of summer when the leafy crowns are heaviest. In winter against a stormy sky it looks wonderfully living, amidst all the appearances of lifelessness in other deciduous trees. Thus the beauty lies in the body of the tree itself, rather than in its adornments of flowers or foliage; the latter turns but a pale dull yellow in autumn, becoming brown, while the flowers do not catch the eye of any but the observant admirer of trees. Yet they produce the curious fruits that have given the tree the name of Buttonwood - hanging balls that persist on the tree over winter and then break up into fluff, when the fruitlets are borne away upon the down and the seeds thus widely distributed both by wind and water." (Peattie, 1948, 1991) The base of the trunk is dark brown, and deeply furrowed into broad, scaly ridges.

FLOWERS: tiny, green, in l or 2 ball-like drooping clusters in May. Male and female clusters on separate twigs.

FRUIT: l" in diameter usually l brown ball hanging on long stalk composed of many narrow nutlets with hair tufts; maturing in autumn, wind dispersed in winter. By February or March you can see these seed balls broken open all over the ground.

HABITAT: moist soils; temperate regions. Hardy - a popular shade tree.

USES: Wood is used for furniture, millwork, flooring, butcher blocks, and musical instruments. With little resistance to decay, its wood is hard, tough and almost impossible to split. The pioneers cut trunks of great dimension into cross-sections which they then bored through the center, to make primitive solid wheels for ox carts. Sycamore wood was also used to make wooden barber poles, wooden washing machines and wooden stereoscopes!

HISTORY: The American Sycamore is a long lived tree - reaching 500 years of age! However after 200 or 300 years it becomes hollow. "The hollowness of sycamores can reach truly stunning proportions. Colonial record-makers crammed into Sycamore trunks like Guinness-bound fraternity brothers packing into telephone booths. In Ohio there were specimens that could hold fifteen men on horseback or forty men off. The numerous stories of handy sycamores serving as temporary homes for colonial families led the Victorians to choose the sycamore to symbolize shelter in their language of flowers." (Rupp, 1992) When Frederick Law Olmstead designed New York City's Central Park, he had many Sycamore trees planted where some continue to flourish. Well over half of London's street trees are planetrees. Many American and western European cities have planted planetrees, including Philadelphia which has counted over half a million.

MYTHOLOGY: The Persian King Xerxes (519-465 B.C.) found this tree "so beautiful that he presented it with golden ornaments and assigned it a personal bodyguard. He had a gold medal engraved with the image of this tree, which he wore ever after as an amulet." (Rupp, 1990).

This article has been prepared by the 79th Street Boat Basin Flora and Fauna Society. If you are interested in the plants and animals of the river and Riverside Park, you can write to us at Box 9, 79th Street Boat Basin, NY, NY l0024.
Copyright 1996 The 79th Street Boat Basin Flora and Fauna Society

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Copyright © 1996-2012 The 79th Street Boat Basin Flora and Fauna Society.