Are you looking for a native species to plant with character galore? Look no further than the stately sycamore tree. Don’t mistake Platanus occidentalis with other sycamore trees grown around the world though. While the powerful Egyptian goddesses Nut, Hathor, and Isis were called the “Ladies of the Sycamore”, and the “sycamores of turquoise” were said to stand at the eastern gate of Heaven, these ancient Egyptian mythologies are actually related to Ficus Sycamorus; a completely different species.
Closer to home, our version of the sycamore is popular for other reasons. Sycamores can grow upwards of 35 m tall and 1.5 – 2 m in diameter when grown in the right site. They prefer flood plains or stream banks, but can grow in part shade to full sun. They are late to leaf out in the spring, but when their palmately lobed leaves finally do unfurl, they are similar to maple leaves. The flower “balls” appear at the same time as the leaves, which later turn into 2.5 cm solitary brown fruit, which persist on the tree into the winter.
The characteristic of a sycamore tree that is most evident to even the untrained eye though is of course its bark. Mature sycamore trees have a mottled bark. The outer brown patchwork scales flake off, revealing white, green and cream-coloured plates underneath. Where other tree’s bark stretches, furrows and ridges, a sycamore accommodates the tree’s growth by flaking off its old tight skin to reveal fresh bark underneath. I bet there are a few people out there who might be a wee bit jealous of that ability.
The striking sycamore has been used for furniture, crates, and is a favourite for butcher blocks. Don’t plant it too close to your septic or sewage system, as its fibrous root system might give you a headache as it seeks out water! Placed just right though, it is an inspiration. In fact, it has inspired many in song. Here is one haunting tune featuring a sycamore that you might remember if you were ever a fan of Twin Peaks. Enjoy!