The sycamore family of plants includes the American sycamore tree, a very large tree that typically has immense girth. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources calls the sycamore the most “massive” of all the trees native to the eastern part of the United States, with some having trunk diameters of more than 10 feet. A sycamore can attain heights of 100 feet, with some capable of growing even taller. It is a valued shade tree with many unique features.
The leaves of a sycamore are broad and have from three to five very shallow lobes, making them resemble enlarged maple leaves. However, they are quite large, with some as wide across as 8 inches. The leaves are green on top, with a duller shade of green below. In the fall, sycamore leaves turn yellowish or brown before falling off.
Two of the more noticeable features of a sycamore are its large branches and the appearance of its bark. The branches, in many cases, contort into weird shapes, especially those low to the ground. The bark is of note because it resembles a jigsaw puzzle of tan, cream, gray and off-white shades. From a distance, the sycamore appears dead in the winter because of the odd coloration of the bark. Upon closer inspection, you will note that the bark feels smooth.
Both male and female flowers grow on the same tree in the case of sycamores. The flowers appear earlier in the southern part of the sycamore’s range, with some developing by March. They will not emerge until May in the North. The flowers are green and form in hanging clusters. The male and female blooms are on different stalks.
The sycamore can grow in a variety of soils but prefers moist ground, especially in the northernmost portions of its native geographic range. They will often grow along rivers and streams, but the young trees will normally not survive a prolonged period of flooding in the midst of the growing season. According to the National Forest Service, a sycamore existing in floodwaters for about two weeks will often die.
The sycamore gets one of its nicknames, “buttonball tree,” from its seedpods, which take the form of rounded brownish balls about an inch wide that hang from the tree. They hang down from the branches after developing in autumn, but they will stay on the tree into winter. Each buttonball consists of a myriad of seeds that have a small tuft of hair affixed to it. When the ball finally starts to fall apart, the wind blows the hairs and seeds everywhere.