If you look sharp when you drive north toward Lockport on the I-990, shortly before you reach French Road you will see among the trees to your right what appears to be a giant twisted skeleton.
It is an American sycamore.
Of all the trees in our northern hardwood forests, the sycamore is the easiest to identify. Especially in winter it appears bleached. As it grows, its outer bark doesnšt expand like that of other trees; instead, it cracks and peels off in sheets, exposing that light inner bark. Shaggy bark peelings often surround the base of the tree.
Thus you donšt have to wait to identify the sycamore until its large maple-like leaves appear. Even then youšll know it by its cracked bark quilt of brown, green, and cream. That is just as well as these are large trees and you can easily get a crick in the neck staring up to see their nearest leaves 30 or 40 feet above you.
The male and female flowers and the resulting fruit of the sycamore all take the form of small balls that hang like solitary green, yellow, or reddish cherries at the ends of long stems. But their composition is nothing like that of cherries. Instead hundreds of narrow flowers or fruits point outward to form the compact sphere. These give the tree an alternate name, buttonball.
These fruit balls remain on the tree through the winter, but a climb to obtain one would hardly be worth the effort. If you find one on the ground, however, you could lever out a nutlet with a pin. Planted in moist soil with plenty of sunlight, it would probably germinate, but it would be easier to raise a tree from a pruned stem.
Sycamores are found through the eastern United States almost to the Gulf coast, but we are near the northern edge of their range and in this region I see all too few of these lovely big trees. In fact they grow to be the largest of all North American hardwoods. The record holder rises 129 feet over the bank of the Muskingum River between Cleveland and Columbus, Ohio. Its trunk is 48 feet around!
Some sycamores live over 500 years, but the interiors of most old trees rot leaving them hollow. Believe it or not, some colonial families used these cavities for stables, barns, and even temporary homes.
American sycamores are not the tree mentioned in the Bible; those are sycamore figs. The name of our tree was probably given it by English colonists who found its leaves similar to their unrelated sycamore maple. Our sycamore is closely related to the London plane tree, which foresters agree is a hybrid of the American sycamore and an oriental tree. London plane trees have earned a well deserved reputation as urban trees. Although they only grow to medium size, they are hardy, resistant to the anthracnose that attacks native sycamores, and tolerant of severe city conditions. They are so popular that they now easily outnumber native sycamores around Buffalo.
If you want to win a chopping contest, have your opponent attack a sycamore log while you choose almost any other species, except perhaps elm. Sycamore wood is very tough. Because of its tendency to rot and warp, it is not suitable for outdoor applications, but the same interlocking grain that makes it so difficult to split makes it perfect for butcheršs blocks and rolling pins. No doubt many of you have such items and can attest to their durability.
Be on the lookout for these attractive trees that so enhance our Niagara Frontier.