Nature Bulletin No. 88 October 19, 1946
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Clayton F. Smith, President
Roberts Mann, Superintendent of Conservation
Indiana folks, far from home, are apt to put their heads together and
sing a mournful tune about the sycamores that gleam in moonlight on
the Wabash. The tree is unique. Sometimes it grows straight and tall to
heights exceeding 150 feet. Others have squatty trunks and massive
spreading limbs. The outer bark at the base of old trees is reddish
brown, thick and scaly, but on the young ones and the upper parts of
older ones it is thin, greenish-gray and smooth. Each year this thin outer
bark flakes off in patches exposing a white new bark beneath, and the
upper branches may be mottled or nearly all white, giving the tree a
weird and ghostly aspect at night.
Also unique are the "buttons": balls about one inch in diameter that
dangle from the twigs on long thin stems all through the winter. These
are densely packed with small seeds each having a fluffy parachute. In
the spring they break up and are widely scattered by the wind. The
leaves are large and broad, with 3 or more sharp-pointed lobes. They
whisper as they rustle in a breeze.
There were sycamores in North America when dinosaurs roamed the
earth. Today it grows in all states south of Maine as far west as Texas
and Nebraska, but is most abundant and attains its greatest size in the
rich bottomlands of the streams in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys.
There is only one growing native in Cook County -- a clump of five
trunks on the bank of Mill Creek, south of the Calumet-Sag Canal in
Palos. The big ones are often hollow due to injuries by fire or floating
ice, and there are records of such trees so huge that pioneer families
camped within them. As late as 1921, there was a sycamore near
Worthington, Indiana, measuring 42 feet 3 inches in circumference at 5
feet above the ground -- the largest deciduous tree in North America.
In early days the pioneers stored grain and smoked their meat in hollow
sycamore logs called "gums". The heartwood is reddish with a silver
cross-grain. Difficult to split, it takes a beautiful polish as veneer for
furniture and interior trim. It is also used to make excelsior, for tobacco
boxes, wooden ware, and those big blocks on which butchers cut meat.
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Update: June 2012