White Tree of Winter
Champion of the oppressed and wrongfully vilified, Grumpy stands ready his shine his Beacon of Truth on any misunderstood plant. Today, he happily parts the gloom enshrouding what is arguably the most striking native shade tree in winter-- the Brobdingnagian sycamore.
"Brobdingnagian" means big, and if you don't get the reference, you must have been shooting spitballs at your friends when your 8th grade class read Gulliver's Travels. A mature American sycamore (Plantanus occidentalis) may stand 120 feet tall and 80 feet wide. Its stout trunk and massive, spreading limbs make it a dominant force of living architecture. And its impact is only magnified when it drops its leaves in fall.
Sycamore grows fast. Planted in moist, fertile soil, it can easily add 2 to 3 feet a year in the Southeast. "Moist" is key. Sycamore relishes the deep alluvial soils deposited by streams, creeks, and rivers. When you spy a line of sycamores snaking through the woods in the countryside, you can bet it mirrors the route of a hidden stream.
Spotting a sycamore is easy right now. Its bark is whiter than the population of Iceland. When lit by the sun, the trunks simply dazzle. It gets this way by shedding big flakes of its old, gray-brown bark in autumn like a snake sloughing off its skin. The bark gradually dulls to greenish-gray by summer and in fall the cycle begins anew.
Large, lobed leaves give sycamore a coarse texture in the summer landscape. Fall color is usually uninspiring, but sometimes, as in the photo below, the leaves can turn a nice buttermilk-biscuit brown.
For a kid, sycamore is just about the best climbing tree around. The bottom branches are usually low enough for you to grab and pull yourself up and the main limbs up the trunk are sturdy and conveniently spaced. Grumpy spent many a happy hour climbing sycamores as a youngan, pondering such mysteries of life as quantum mechanics and how come instant coffee takes time to make.
That said, a sycamore is not a tree you want in a small yard. It will swallow the whole thing. Sycamore is best when given plenty of room to spread. Don't plant it in the strip between the sidewalk and curb, either, unless you like sidewalks that double as skateboard ramps.
Saving Sick Sycamores
Folks shy away from planting sycamores for two main reasons. First, the tree is somewhat messy. It does drop twigs and flakes of bark fairly regularly. So if you can't stand this, don't buy a sycamore, buy a flagpole.
Second, two maladies commonly affect the foliage and you have to inspect the leaves carefully to determine which is the culprit. Anthracnose is a fungal disease that attacks young sycamore leaves just after they've unfurled in spring. This usually follows a spell of cool, wet weather. The leaves develop brown streaks that first follow the veins and then expand to fill in between. Infected leaves drop. There really isn't much you can do to curtail anthracnose on big trees, other than raking up and burning fallen leaves.
Unlike anthracnose, leaf scorch begins with leaves turning brown between the green veins. It usually shows up im mid- to late summer and results from drought. (Sycamore likes moist soil, remember?) Badly scorched leaves drop. The best way to prevent this is by planting in good, moist soil and watering during extended dry spells. Also, don't plant sycamores where their branches extend over hot pavement.
Foolishly Questioning Grumpy
"Huh?" some of you are saying right now. "I see sycamores planted near hot pavement all over downtown." No, you don't. What you're seeing is a sycamore lookalike called the London plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia). This hybrid is more tolerant of city pollution and poor, compacted, dry soil than sycamore. But the bark isn't as white in winter -- more of an olive-cream. To distinguish sycamore from London plane, look at the seed balls hanging from long stems. On sycamores, the seed balls are solitary; on London planes, they come in pairs.
Where to Buy Sycamore
Many nurseries (hereabouts anyway) sell sycamores, so you shouldn't have any trouble finding one. If you need quick shade, have plenty of room, and like to climb, it's the tree for you. While you're up there, see if you can solve the mystery of instant coffee. It's haunted me for years.