American Sycamore: A Distinctive Tree

In Winter, when almost all the trees in Eliza Howell Park are leafless, American Sycamore trees stand out, with their attractive multi-colored bark.

While some of the Sycamores appear to have been planted for parkland purposes,  more have grown naturally, especially along the river. American Sycamore is native to eastern North America and is often found in bottomland near rivers.

When I stop on the footbridge over the Rouge River during my walks, I always check on the one on the right as I face upstream.

This range map is from the USDA. Other species of sycamores can be found in the west.

American Sycamore seeds are also distinctive. The seedhead is a roundish ball, about 1 inch in diameter, hanging from a peduncle (stem) that can be 6 inches long. They mature in the Fall, hang on the tree through the Winter, fall to the ground in Spring and open to disperse seeds.

A seedhead contains perhaps 100 seeds.

Older trees often have cavities that are used by both birds and mammals. The trunks are sometimes hollow and were used as nesting and roosting sites by  Chimney Swaifts before structures with chimneys provided plenty of other hollow vertical locations.

Sycamores are a little less noticeable during other seasons when the trees are leafed out, but I have found it important to check them carefully in May and June,  when birds are nesting.

I occasionally find Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Mourning Doves and Orchard Orioles nesting there. But it is Eastern Kingbird that particularly favors American Sycamore for its nesting tree. I typically find 3 or 4 Kingbird nests in the park each year, and the big majority of them over the years have been in Sycamore trees.

Photo by Kevin Murphy

When Sycamore is planted along streets or in yards, it is sometimes considered a “dirty tree” that clutters lawns with pieces of shed bark. In a natural setting, however, it is a fascinating tree — in looks and in the fauna it attracts.

Sycamore bud at end of February

American Sycamore is very high on my list of trees for nature walkers to know.

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