The native sycamore tree
By TOM BUTZLER
One of the songs that seems to age gracefully is “The Trees” by the Canadian rock band Rush, from their 1978 album Hemispheres. The song goes on to describe a conflict between the mighty oaks and the upstart maples. Some interpret the lyrics as a statement on social disparity, racism, or communism. A few folks even claim that it is commentary on the Canadian – U.S. relationship whereas the oaks represent the US and the maples symbolize our neighbors in the north (take a peek at the Canadian flag).
While oaks and maples can be found throughout central Pennsylvania, one of the easily missed giants is our native sycamore. Its ornamental qualities are unlike many of our other natives. It does not produce showy flowers as some of our smaller flowering trees (think redbud or dogwood) nor is there an explosion of leaf color as weather turns colder in the fall on larger trees like sweetgum or black gum.
The showiest attribute is the tree trunk. Brown bark dominates the first several years but over time will flake away to an inner bark of white to creamy white coloring. The lower trunk retains some of the brown bark and there is a nice contrast between the dark and light-colored layers. Further up the trunk, the brown bark often falls completely away. The exposed surface shines, especially in the winter months when leaves cannot obscure the view.
Probably not a great tree for the small landscapes, as it will grow 100 feet. In addition, it can be a bit messy as it drops a lot of fruit (dry and spiky) and twigs. To supply food to the tree’s massive infrastructure, the leaves are large, about 9 inches wide. Could be a nightmare for those that are fastidious in leaf cleanup.
To view sycamores, head to a nearby steam or riverbank. The bottomland soils, deep and moist, provide optimal growing conditions.
One of the more accessible and greatest displays of bark coloration in our area is along Pine Creek. From the historic bridge on the backside of Jersey Shore (where River Road in Lycoming County crosses over Pine Creek to Clinton County) head north on Pine Creek Avenue for about 500 feet. On the left, between the road and Pine Creek, stand three magnificent sycamores. They cannot be missed! These giant sentinels are breathtaking and will cause you to stop and stare.
Tom Butzler is a horticulture educator with the Pennsylvania State University Cooperative Extension Service and may be reached at 570-726-0022.