Winter is the best season for sycamores, I think. Their white bark gleams in the winter sun making them one of America’s most distinctive trees. Against a clear blue sky or in front of a bank of Southern magnolias, a sycamore is a majestic sight.
The sycamore was one of the first trees I learned to identify as a child. In Sunday school we sang:
Zacchaeus was a wee little man
And a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree
For the Lord he wanted to see…
The song comes with hand motions, which help children engage with the lyrics, and is based on a story from the Gospel of Luke about a rich publican who “was of little stature” and had to climb into a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus as he passed by. The Lord saw him and told him to hurry down because he was going to abide at his house. This shocked the crowd who considered Zacchaeus disreputable. However, Zacchaeus “made haste, and came down, and received him joyfully” and announced a change of heart, “half of my goods I give to the poor; and if I have taken any thing from any man by false accusation, I restore him fourfold.”
My mother told me that Zacchaeus slid down so fast he skinned the bark off the sycamore and it has not been able to properly stay on to this day. The combination of music, theology and horticulture made an already distinctive tree even easier to remember!
In actuality, the tree Zacchaeus perched in was a sycamore fig (Ficus sycomorus). If he had climbed into our sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), he might have had an even better view since it is such a tall tree. In fact, our sycamore, more precisely known as Eastern sycamore, American planetree or American sycamore, is one of the tallest trees native to the eastern United States. Mature specimens can reach 100 to 150 feet tall or more under ideal conditions.
The lower trunk of sycamore has an undistinguished grayish brown bark. About a quarter to halfway up the tree, the bark begins to flake off in large scales, leaving an arctic camouflage effect. On the limbs and farther up the trunk, the bark is chalky white with a smooth texture similar to that of crape myrtles. There doesn’t appear to be a scientific consensus about why the bark is this way, but I’m willing to enjoy it without explanation, or just with the one provided by my mother.
A line of sycamores on the horizon usually means a river or stream is ahead. Sycamores are the giants of our floodplains, clustering along riverbanks like skeletons of the Titans wiggling their toe bones in the mud. They do not require wet ground, however, and will grow in ordinary soil.
One thing they do require is room. Sycamores are not for confined spaces or small yards. They are good choices for churches, schools, college campuses, cemeteries, rest stops, parks and grounds of government buildings – places where they can grow tall and wide without encumbrances. One of my favorite sycamores is on the grounds of the Georgia Capitol.
Among the virtues of the sycamore is longevity. There are specimens scattered around the country that are 200 or 300 years old or older. Take a look at some of these ancient giants at www.monumentaltrees.com/en/trees/platanusoccidentalis/records/. This longevity is why I think they make good choices for landscapes that are safe from bulldozing. They can become a piece of living history in an historic setting.
The sycamore is not perfect. Diseases can cause leaf drop and twig dieback. Some people think it is somewhat messy, but I get irritated with those who can only focus on faults, those who only look down at the mud when they should be looking at the stars – or at least into a bright canopy.
Besides the Sunday school ditty, the sycamore has found its way into other songs, perhaps most famously in the touching “On the Banks of the Wabash,” one of the best-selling songs of the 19th century and the state song of Indiana:
Oh, the moonlight's fair tonight along the Wabash,
From the fields there comes the breath of new-mown hay.
Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming,
On the banks of the Wabash, far away.
Take a listen to this version recorded in 1913 by the American Quartet at www.loc.gov/jukebox/recordings/detail/id/2966/ or this version recorded by the Mills Brothers at www.youtube.com/watch?v=9qVjOJq9IXQ. Sycamores also make an appearance in this ballad of mining sung by Judy Collins: www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4kuFs8u7PA.
If you drop by my office in the Agriculture Building, I’ll be glad to show you the sycamore gracing the state Capitol, sing the praises of sycamores in general and maybe even sing a few lines of “On the Banks of the Wabash” and the Zacchaeus song, including the hand gestures.
-- Arty Schronce
January 27, 2015