A winter walk through the woods is a lesson in subtraction and addition. The leaves are off the trees, and many animals have left the scene to hibernate or migrate. But with the loss of the leaves comes sunlight and the opportunity to admire each tree like an unwrapped Christmas present. Last spring’s nests emerge, as do slender branches, sturdy trunks, and the seedpods that have not yet succumbed to wind or hungry wildlife.
Among my favorite trees to admire in the winter is the American Sycamore, or Platanus occidentalis. The sycamore’s mottled trunk stands out among its peers: while the bark of all trees must give way to a growing trunk, in sycamores this is particularly evident, with bark peeling in irregular tan, gray, and brown scales.
Sycamores are sometimes referred to as buttonwood trees, referencing the brown seed balls that persist through winter and hang from branches like holiday ornaments. In early spring, the balls fall apart, revealing hundreds of seeds attached to fluffy “parachutes” and a hard, button-like core.
Sycamores, which thrive in wetland and riparian areas, are among the tallest trees of the forest lowland, reaching heights of 98-130 feet. Particularly large sycamores often have hollow trunks, providing shelter for wildlife and a place for fresh water to collect. The largest recorded tree trunk of a native North American tree belonged to a sycamore and measured ten feet in diameter.
I admit that there are many winter days when I am reluctant to leave the warmth of my home. But on those days when I do venture into the forest, I am never disappointed.
by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Coordinator