A Giant Along the River Bank: Our Mighty Sycamore

Safe in the harbour of home at last
I’ll tell the tale of my dangers past.
O! for my cottage beside the sea,
And the peaceful shade of my sycamore tree!

From The Sycamore Tree by Charles Mackay

The first time I really noticed the American sycamore tree was during my first paddle on the Quinebaug River. It was late March or early April, and except for a few early blooms of red maple and willow, most of the deciduous trees within view resembled exposed skeletons — the promise of green life still captive in unopened flower and leaf buds.

The swift flow of the Quinebaug pulled my kayak along at a steady clip and my attention was fixed on the rocks, eddies and strainers (downed trees) that protruded dangerously over the river bank. My focus was to stay afloat and avoid an unplanned swim in the chilly waters of early spring.

But I kept noticing huge trees with strange, mottled bark looming above the river. I tried to remember the name of the tree and was distracted from my task of safely maneuvering my kayak. It wasn’t until I entered a wider, slower-flowing section of the river that I was able to look more closely at one of the trees.

The trunk was a massive 3 to 4 feet in diameter and it spread to the sky a good 80 to 100 feet above the water. From the branches hung perfect one-inch diameter, round balls on long twig tethers. It was as if Mother Nature had decorated the tree with perfect brown ornaments but had forgotten to put them away after the holidays.

As we floated past yet another giant tree with mottled bark and little hanging ornaments, I called out to my paddle companion if he knew the variety. He hollered back, “sycamore – American sycamore.” I told him later that perhaps the river should have been named the Sycamore River since there are so many along its banks.

Since then I seem to notice the American sycamore tree more and more, especially along our region’s streams and rivers. Here is information quoted directly from the handy tree identification guide, Forest Trees of Southern New England, provided by the Connecticut Forest and Park Association:

The American Sycamore, also called Buttonwood, is considered the largest hardwood tree in North America. It occurs throughout this region, but is most common and reaches its largest size along streams on rich bottomlands. It is one of the most rapid-growing trees. It often forks into several large secondary trunks, and the massive spreading limbs form an open head sometimes 100 feet across.

The bark of the Sycamore is a characteristic feature. On the younger trunk and large limbs it is very smooth, greenish-gray in color. The outer bark yearly flakes off in large patches and exposes the neatly white younger bark. Near the base of old trees the bark becomes thick, dark brown and divided by deep furrows.

The leaves are simple, alternate, four to seven inches long and about as broad, light green and smooth above and paler below. The base of the leafstalk is hollow and in falling off exposes the Winter bud.

The fruit is a ball about an inch in diameter, conspicuous throughout the Winter as it hangs on its flexible stem, which is three to five inches long. During early Spring the fruit ball breaks up, and small seeds are widely scattered by the wind.

The wood is hard and, moderately strong, but decays rapidly in the ground. It is used for butcher’s blocks, furniture and interior finish.

If you see a sycamore tree, the one thing you will notice right away (along with its great height) is the mottled color due to the flaking bark exposing patches of brown, green and gray.

The hue is almost a camouflage color favored by hunters and the military for concealment, but today seems all the rage with various types of clothing. Instead of hiding the tree among many in the forest, the color seems to jump out as if to exclaim, “here I am, a magnificent sycamore!”

Sometimes I wish I had a sycamore tree on my property. I would make time each spring to sit in its deep shade, examine the wood up close, and pry open the dropped seed balls to reveal the seeds hidden within. Unfortunately our land is too dry, boney, and free of surface moisture favored by tree species like the sycamore that prefer “wet feet.”

My enjoyment of the noble sycamore will continue to be fulfilled during paddles on one of our many rivers. Maybe someday I’ll discover a quiet spot along the river with an overarching majestic sycamore. I’ll pull my kayak towards the river shore and sit a while in its shade.

We have countless reasons to be thankful we live in this beautiful place called The Last Green Valley. I hope you’ll join me as we enjoy the flora and fauna that makes this region so very special.

Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 30 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org