Platanus occidentalis

by John Brouwer

Sycamore is a large tree characterized by mottled exfoliating bark. Sycamore bark lacks the elasticity of most barks. It can't grow with the tree so the bark comes off in slabs leaving grey, brown and white blotches on the trunk. These trunk blotches are unique, so if you see a tree with these characteristics it can be immediately identified as sycamore.

Scycamore is also know as buttonwood. The seed balls are about 1.5 inches in diameter and have seed making up the covering of the ball. The inside of the ball is compressed fluffy material to which the seeds are attached. As the ball breaks up in the fall the fluff carries the seed in the wind to a new location. The heart of the seed ball is a hard circular ball 1/4"- 3/8" in diameter. Pioneers used that ball for buttons – hence the name buttonwood.

Pioneer literature for our region reliably documents huge buttonwood having trunks with a diameter of 16 feet and heights of 165 feet. Such trees become hollow. Pioneer mythology maintains that often in their first settlement year families would cut a doorway into an old buttonwood and use it as their shelter until they could build their log shanty. After that the tree would be used as the family chicken coop. There is an example of a buttonwood shelter at the historic Fort Malden at Amherstburg.

With a diameter of 16 feet, buttonwood is ¾ of the diameter of the largest Californian redwood. Ontario squandered the opportunity to attract tourists with a road through a buttonwood tree.

Buttonwood has the dubious distinction as being a founding contributor of the New York stock exchange. In 1792 twenty-four brokers met under a buttonwood tree at 68 Wall Street and drafted what became known as the Buttonwood Agreement. This agreement evolved into the consititution of the New York Stock and Exchange Board in 1817 and also gave us the TSX. It is stock markets which were and are the major social and economic forces which reduce all things in our earth to commodities whose values are set only by a market. This commodification is what destroyed buttonwood, the carolinian forest, and the other north and south American forests. The natural history of north American would have developed very differently if that buttonwood at 68 Wall Street had dropped a branch on the afternoon of May 17, 1792.

Sycamore is one of our most ancient trees. It has been found in the fossil record of sediments that are 100 million years old.

The Biblical sycamore is a related species, sycamore fig. This tree was admired by the ancients. The Persian King Xerxes (519-465 BCE) found the sycamore so beautiful that he had a gold medal struck with the image that he wore as an amulet. The historian Herodatus relates that Xerxes was so enamoured by a sycamore grove that his army rested for a week giving the Athenians time to prepare defences and save their city.

Sycamore wood is difficult to work and split. Its grain structure alternates every year resulting in an interlaced wood structure. Natives used the hollow log for canoes up to 65 feet. Wildlife use the hollow trunks and branches for burrows and nests. It is used in furniture, boxes, crates and veneer. Because it can be endlessly hacked without splitting, it continues to be used for butcher blocks.

In the US sycamore is being used in plantation wood fibre production. The trees are coppiced every twelve years. Coppicing refers to cutting off the main tree trunk near ground level and forcing the tree to develop additional main stems. Current estimates are that plantation sycamore with coppicing would provide 50% more wood fibre per acre at less cost than natural regeneration stands. Medieval foresters knew this a thousand years ago as they used coppicing to increase the firewood and charcoal production on the natural forests of Europe.

Sycamore is now used extensively as an urban shade tree. The trees we have were grown from seed collected near Woodstock. A sycamore sapling is planted just south of our community center as it can grow to provide shade to the patio area and playground. Given the above pioneer use, in about 150 years this tree could become Beaver Creek's proverbial 51st unit.

December 2009