Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Species Spotlight: The Sycamore

In presettlement days, the eastern border of Illinois contained the great trees that made up the last stronghold of the eastern deciduous forest. Some considered them to be one of the wonders of the world. The trees grew to prodigious size, and among the giants were the sycamores. These old sycamores had great white branches as large as tree trunks--stark pale ghosts of perhaps even larger trees before them. The sycamores are, in girth of trunk, the largest deciduous hardwoods of North America, and in those early days were truly the giants of the earth.

Sycamore, Plantanus occidentalis, is a tree of bottomlands and is found throughout Illinois. Sycamores are characterized by light gray outer bark that scales away like "torn wallpaper" to reveal an inner white bark. In moonlight, these white branches and trunks stand out starkly and marked the river's edge for early navigators. The leaves, which are broader than long and frequently 10 inches wide, are among the largest of the simple native leaves. They are arranged alternately on the twigs and are bright green above and paler beneath. In the fall they turn a russet brown.

Sycamore tree Plantanus occidentalis

The tree produces both its leaves and flowers in May. The flowers grow in inconspicuous, drooping, dense clusters. The fruits which soon appear are greenish balls suspended from slender stems. The fruits were the favorite food of the now extinct Carolina paraquet. By October, the fruits have matured and are dangling brown balls of seeds about an inch in diameter. They will remain on the tree most of the winter, and by spring will break up into fluff, scattering the fine seeds into the wind. These fruits lend the common names buttonwood and button-ball tree to the sycamore.

Once sycamores reach middle age (200 to 300 years old) they become hollow. The sapwood is no longer involved with water and mineral transport, but instead, gradually fills with metabolic wastes and resins that harden to form the dead central core of the tree, known as heartwood. When the heartwood rots, which frequently happens with sycamores, the tree is hollow, yet can still live a long life.

One of the largest trees to exist between the Allegheny and Rocky mountains was a sycamore that stood on the banks of Coffee Creek, about four miles below Mt. Carmel in Wabash County. This giant stood 168 feet tall with a diameter of 16 feet! The area underneath its branches became a popular picnic spot, and its hollow trunk provided shelter during rain. By 1897 the landowner had had enough of curiosity seekers trampling his crops in nearby fields, and had the tree cut. No part of it remains today, but in the Red Barn Nature Center of Beall Woods State Park, one can view photographs of this past giant and stand in a large circle (illustrating its circumference and diameter) painted on the floor--the last representation of this great tree.

Susan Post, Center for Economic Entomology

Charlie Warwick, editor


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