The stately skeleton trees of winter

The sycamore’s spectacular branches and peeling camouflage-colored bark make a dramatic display, even in winter.
The sycamore’s spectacular branches and peeling camouflage-colored bark make a dramatic display, even in winter.

Laura Dean Bennett
Contributing Writer

I love sycamore trees.

This time of year, if you’re anywhere near a creek or a river, you’re probably going to see lots of them.

With the surrounding background of gray, leafless trees in the woods, their bright white trunks and branches are really showing off.

One of my mom’s favorite “driving games” during a car trip was, “what’s that plant… that flower… that tree?” Sometimes she knew the answer and sometimes she didn’t.

But when she’d point to a sycamore, I always knew the answer.

Probably like a lot of people, they were the first trees I could name.

The sycamore’s spectacular branches, huge, maple-like leaves and peeling camouflage-colored bark make a dramatic display.

The North American Sycamore is a common tree and one of our largest hardwood trees. Sycamores grow in all states east of the Great Plains, except Minnesota.

They belong to the planet’s oldest family of trees – found to be more than 100 million years old.

The sycamore is a fast-growing tree which usually thrives in low-lying fields and along rivers and streams.

And it is long-lived, really long-lived. Sycamores can live up to six hundred years!

And they’re big. They can grow to more than 100 feet tall and have the largest average trunk diameter of any eastern hardwood.

In the giant specimens, the trunks naturally hollow out into cavernous spaces over time.

Sycamore’s bark is naturally prone to peeling off in big sheets and large chunks – especially in winter.

Although they may be the most noticeable because of their striking appearance, sycamores aren’t the only tree that does this. Birch, redbud, scotch pine, shagbark hickory and silver maple also slough off their bark.

Its hybridized cousin, Britain’s planetree, adapts very well to urban living.

This relatively modern, “improved,” variety of syca-more is New York City’s tallest street tree and is the most common tree in Brooklyn, New York.

As beautiful as they are, landscapers don’t like to use the original North American Sycamore because it can be subject to a lot of tree diseases and attractive to many destructive insects, like aphids.

They also have aggressive and extensive root systems.

Its name comes from two Greek words: siga, meaning fig and mora which means mulberry.

In Greek history, according to Herodotus, the Greeks owed some of their military success to the charm of the sycamore.

In 480 BC, an invading Persian king, Xerxes, camped his army in a sycamore grove.

Xerxes was so taken by their beauty that he decided to stay camped there, putting off his march for a few days. It was said that this delay cost Xerxes the war, and Greece went on to build the Athenian Empire.

In ancient Egypt the “Holy Sycamore” was believed to connect the world of the living with the world of the dead.
And the sycamore tree is mentioned many times in the Bible.

These majestic and mysterious-looking trees have grown deep roots in Western Virginia folklore!

Their dramatic appearance earned them the name, “Ghosts of the Forest” by Native Americans, with many tales spun around their magical, sometimes sinister, nature.

According to one Wyandotte legend, the great chief who ruled over all life, grew angry with two evil spirits.

He cast them to Earth where they collided with two giant sycamores growing along the banks of the Kanawha River.

The wickedness of these evil spirits seeped into the trees and deformed them, turning their limbs into grotesque shapes.

The Wyandotte in the area knew to avoid those cursed trees when they followed the trail to the river, but the European settlers who arrived later, scoffed at their superstition.

Some even threatened to cut them down for firewood.

Oddly enough, many who made such boasts seemed to meet with terrible misfortune.

Rumors spread of a settler who seemed to have been frightened to death – his body found beneath the legendary sycamores, his face frozen in a mask of terror.

In 1840, a settler decided to put an end to what he considered this sycamore foolishness. He would rid the area of these cursed trees once and for all.

Grabbing his axe, he hiked up the trail to where the sycamores stood, and swung the heavy instrument, aiming for the nearest of the two trees.

Instead of sinking into the bark, the axe glanced off the trunk, slicing open his leg.

The ax head must have severed an artery and he bled to death, lying under the branches of the triumphant sycamore tree.
But not all sycamores were malevolent.

As large as they grew, often featuring huge, hollow trunks, they could also provide shelter.

Such was the case for John and Samuel Pringle, brothers who deserted from the Continental army during the French and Indian War.

The two brothers arrived in present-day Upshur County in 1764.

They took up residence in the eleven-foot-deep cavity of a towering American sycamore.

This sycamore, which became known as “The Pringle Tree,” stood beside a stream named Turkey Run in a meadow near the Buckhannon River.

The hollow of this giant tree protected the Pringle brothers from freezing winters and prowling timber wolves, bears and panthers for three years.

In the autumn of 1767, their ammunition was running very low. Although he feared capture and incarceration for desertion, John Pringle decided to go back for supplies.

The closest settlements to their sycamore tree home were about two hundred miles away, along the South Branch of the Potomac, so it took quite some time for John to return.

When he did, he brought back the news that the war had ended and neither brother was wanted by the military authorities.
The Pringles moved to the South Branch settlements and eventually settled in Kentucky.

In 1770, they led a party of pioneers back to the Buckhannon Valley and a settlement, named Bush’s Fort, was established there near their huge sycamore.

A historic highway marker on U.S. Route 119 North of Buckhannon marks the location of the famous Pringle Sycamore.

Visitors can see a giant sycamore, the third generation of the original tree – supposedly grown from the roots of the famous Pringle tree.

It’s not unheard of for hunters and hikers to take shelter in hollow sycamores, but, as far as we know, the Pringles brothers were the only settlers in these parts to have set up extended housekeeping in them.

Apparently, even George Washington, one of Western Virginia’s earliest colonial explorers, fell under the spell of the giant syca-mores.

In his diary, he mentions exploring Westernmost Virginia and coming across some interesting finds on the islands in the Ohio River near today’s Blennerhassat Island.

He made note of a giant sycamore on what is known today as Eureka Island, and, in doing so, created one of the area’s first tourist attractions.

Washington measured the circumference of the trunk, which was an amazing 60 feet.

A friend of mine who has visited Blennerhassat Island told me that a tour guide there tells the story of a sycamore tree there that, back in the day, was so large that residents held parties in it – even having fires in the tree to keep partiers warm.

All well and good, until, one night, the fire got away from them and the tree was burned down.

These big old sycamores can also make excellent homes and provide food for lots of animals, from birds to black bears.

Sycamore seeds are favored by many birds, including the purple finch, goldfinches, chickadees, and the dark-eyed junco. They are also eaten by weasels, beavers, and squirrels. And according to another friend of mine, black Labs out for a walk will also enjoy the occasional sycamore seed.

Farmers were even known to house pigs and horses inside a living sycamore.

Cavity nesting birds that call the sycamore home include the barred owl, eastern screech-owl, great crested flycatcher, chimney swift and the wood duck.

And a bird called the Sapsucker uses sycamores, too.

The Sapsucker likes to eat the sweet sycamore sap and the insects that are drawn to the sap.

Hummingbirds are also known to feast on sycamore sap.

Sycamores gave shelter, food and medicine to all who knew enough to use them.

Knowing the sycamore as a source of nutritious sap could have meant the difference between life and death to Native Americans and the early American settlers.

Sycamore is an excellent wood for spoon and bowl carving. The wood tends to warp in the drying process, so it must be carefully dried and seasoned before use.

The beautiful, light-colored wood has been used to make other utensils such as wooden plates, forks and skewers.

It’s used for fruit and vegetable baskets and boxes and is also used for gun stocks, music boxes, guitars and violins.

Sycamore leaves are packed around apples and root crops to help preserve them.

Native Americans and early settlers used the sycamore for a variety of medicinal purposes, including cold and cough remedies, as well as dietary, dermatological, gynecological, respiratory, and for gastrointestinal problems.

Its astringent properties made it useful for treating skin problems and as an eye wash.

The sweet sap of the inner bark was used for wound dressing.

And not only was sycamore used to make medicine, it could also be used for food.

Sycamore sap was used to make wine and, like maple, also a delicious syrup.

The sap can be boiled down to make small batches of sycamore syrup and its leaves can be wrapped around food, such as rolls, for baking in a sweet flavor.

Now when you admire the skeletal, peeling limbs of the Sycamore, you’ll know that you are looking at one of our most significant trees – one which has contributed to the survival of countless species, including our own.

more recommended stories