Darn those dirty old sycamore trees


I have a large sycamore tree (Platanus occidentalis) in my yard. It’s healthy and provides needed shade for much of the year. The problem is that it sheds its leaves much like my old tomcat sheds his fur, a little at a time for what seems like forever. I mowed the lawn recently and chewed up all the fallen leaves. The next day there were as many as the ones I mulched into the grass.
These leaves have three large pointed lobes and are often close to a foot across. If they stay on the tree until late fall the foliage develops an attractive deep reddish orange  color. However, the leaf dropping season is among the longest of any tree species.
The leaves aren’t the only part that makes them dirty. Sycamores have fibrous fruits a little smaller than golf balls. They fall on lawns, driveways and sidewalks. Lawnmowers can hurl them through windows or pepper passing cars. Bark also flakes off in large sheets which can make a yard look unsightly.
Sycamores are common landscape trees and native throughout much of the eastern US from southern New England to the Deep South. They adapt well to wet soils, which we have plenty of around here. Despite their dense canopy sycamores also tolerate storms well too. Wood is strong and trees are very well rooted. In short, they’re tough and generally well-shaped.
I planted a wild one in my dad’s yard in Maine and it’s flourishing, so they will tolerate temperatures much lower than those in their native range. Dad isn’t concerned about the leaves or the mess. He figures they fertilize the soil anyway, and he likes his sycamore because nobody else up there has one.
Sycamores can grow to be extremely large trees with straight trunks, but they aren’t used much commercially. While wood is strong it has a twisted grain. This makes it difficult to work and even more difficult to split. They have been used for cutting boards largely for this reason.
Many specimens achieve heights of over 100 feet and more than six feet in diameter. However, trees that large are usually hollow. That’s great for wildlife but not so good for timber use.
Native sycamores are usually found in mixed stands. Young seedlings can thrive under an existing tree canopy. They grow fast and quickly catch up to the taller trees. Due to their fast growth rate they are often mentioned as possible biomass trees for fuel production. They sprout well when cut, which also would be beneficial for that use. Replanting wouldn’t be necessary.
Sycamores are a sap rich tree. In fact, they can provide a great water source for campers. The sap contains sugars and could be boiled down for syrup. However, concentration is so much lower than sugar maple that it wouldn’t be practical.
I guess I’ll continue to deal with all the fallen leaves. Shade is sweet on those 95 degree summer days. Besides, I have nowhere to fell mine safely and it holds up my clothesline.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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