Ever since the first time I saw an American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), I’ve been fascinated by this tree. Its chalk white bark — which has flakes of brown, gray, green, and blue — is by far its most noticeable trait. Combined with a hollow trunk, massive leaves, and pendulous fruit, it’s one of the most distinctive and easily identified trees in the eastern United States.
In addition, the American sycamore has a long history of use — as a source of drinking water, syrup, tonic, remedy, and construction material. Occasionally, living sycamores have even been used as temporary dwellings by humans and their livestock.
Beyond that, the American sycamore provides food and shelter to wildlife, including finches, beavers, bears, and owls. Finally it provides a lesson to humanity, who would be well served by emulating the resilience, growth, and community that the American sycamore embodies.
The American sycamore — also called buttonball, whitewood, plane tree, or ghost tree — is a native deciduous tree of the eastern United States, with a range extending from Ontario in the north to Florida in the south and from Massachusetts in the east to Oklahoma in the west. It prefers riparian habitats, often bordering creeks, rivers, lakes, or swamps, and has prominent roots that often look like tentacles burrowing into the soil.
Up to 170 feet tall and ten feet in diameter, the American sycamore is a giant of the forest, towering over most other trees of equivalent age. Also gigantic are its leaves, which measure up to ten inches long by ten inches wide — each having up to five lobes with irregular teeth along the margin.
The American sycamore is also monoecious — with both male and female reproductive organs on the same tree — and has inconspicuous red and green flowers in springtime. The fruit ball that results from these flowers is spherical, dry, and up two inches in diameter.
And though it is technically a fruit, most people who encounter it in winter will call it a seed head for understandable reasons, given that it becomes dry and fuzzy as the season advances, much like a dandelion.
But by far the most distinguishing characteristic of the American sycamore is its bark. Starting at the base of the trunk, it looks fairly normal, with a course texture and brown or gray coloration. Then, around fifteen feet up the trunk, it starts to transition to a flaky, scale-like texture with gray, green, or blue coloration. After about thirty feet, the bark becomes smooth and white — almost like bone or ivory — for the remainder of its height.
Seen in winter against the backdrop of a barren forest, the tree can sometimes resemble a skeletal hand, reaching from the earth to the sky — perhaps explaining the origin of its alternate name, the ghost tree.
[Before harvesting or consuming wild plants/trees, make sure you have the permission of the landowner and an understanding of considerations for use.]
Despite a perceived association with the dead, the American sycamore is very much of use to the living.
To start, its sap is entirely safe to drink and can be used as a source of clean water in cases where none other can be found; though obviously the tree would have to be tapped, much like a maple. Also like maple, the sap can be boiled down to make syrup or even sugar; though the results are quite scanty and of inferior quality in comparison to maple syrup.
The inner bark of the American sycamore is the most medicinally active part of the tree, with potential action against lung ailments like cough, cold, and tuberculosis along with measles and dysentery. A tea made from the inner bark is said to be astringent, diuretic, tonic, and purgative.
Sycamore wood, on the other hand, has been used to make barrels, pails, butcher blocks, canoes, and even primitive washing machines. In the trunk of a tree, living sycamore wood becomes progressively more hollow with age, creating cavities that have been used historically as cisterns, barns, and even houses.
Along with providing occasional housing for humans, the American sycamore is frequently home to many wildlife species, especially owls, flycatchers, chimney swifts, and wood ducks. In old trees where the cavity at the center is large enough, bats and even black bears have been known to take up residence.
Likewise the American sycamore provides food for many species of moths, leafhoppers, and other insects — who, though they may be damaging in some instances, are frequently also decomposers and pollinators. The branches and leaves are eaten by white-tailed deer, the wood by beavers, and the seeds by finches, juncos, and chickadees.
On the basis of this, it should go without saying that the American sycamore is a valuable part of nature. But, as with all of nature, the real value of the American sycamore is not so much in what can be gotten out of it as what can be learned from it.
In particular, the American sycamore demonstrates the value of three things: resilience, growth, and community. Its resilience can be seen in the way it grows back after being cut or damaged, frequently surviving events that would kill other trees. Its growth can be seen in the way it spreads thickly through the soil and rises quickly through the forest, often dwarfing other trees of equivalent age. And its community can seen in the way it provides food and shelter to other species, from finches and beavers to black bears and humans.
So while it may be occasionally beneficial to make use of these trees as means to an end, it would be far more beneficial to recognize them as we ourselves would like to be recognized: as unique, valuable, and beautiful pieces of the puzzle that is our world.
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