Thursday, December 11, 2014

EXPLORING THE NIAGARA FRONTIER: The sycamore – one of Niagara’s most magnificent trees

This massive sycamore in Gasport sports a trunk that's 18 feet in circumference. 

Our farm once had three large barns that were all built in 1852. The last of them came finally down in 1997. Despite the quality of their construction, they couldn’t handle the elements and stand the test of time.

While man’s artistry failed, Mother Nature’s hasn’t.

Across what was once the barnyard stands a magnificent sycamore tree. That tree was there before those barns were built. It probably preceded those barns by at least another 20 years, maybe even 50. I won’t know until it comes crashing to the earth and I can count the rings, which I hope is not anytime soon.

It likely won’t be. The tree is still healthy and vibrant. It has survived almost 200 years of ice storms, strong winds, and insect pests and looks like it could survive 200 more. The trunk comes in at a jaw-dropping circumference of 214 inches (almost 18 feet), making it one of the largest and oldest sycamores in the state. Despite that size, New York’s sycamores pale in comparison to those of the South, where more favorable growing conditions have allowed past giants to reach 15 feet in diameter.

Our tree is a beautiful specimen. Then again, so are all sycamores.

The bark of the sycamore has a tell-tale mottled appearance. 
The bark

Sycamores have the most attractive bark of all shade trees. It is constantly peeling and flaking and exposes a wide variety of colors. It is primarily white with patches of brown, green and gray throughout.

That mottled appearance can be compared to a jigsaw puzzle.

From a great distance away you will notice the white bark (no other tree of its size has it), the massive straight trunk and the broad crown. It’s not uncommon to see sycamores in excess of 70 feet in height.

Sycamore leaves are big, too. They can be over eight inches wide.
The leaves

The leaves seem to be as massive as the trees themselves. Maple-like in appearance, they are four to eight inches long and even wider. They are bright green above and paler green below. In the fall they turn brown.

Sycamores are known to shed their leaves all summer long, so don’t assume that your tree is sick.

The fruit

Everything about these trees is big – including the fruit.

In the late fall you will see brown balls of one-half to almost two inches in diameter hanging from sycamores. They will be rock hard at first, but as the winter progresses they will soften considerably and then you can ply the ball apart to exposes hundreds of little seeds on puffs that could go airborne (like a dandelion or cattail). If you were interested in being a “Johnny Sycamoreseed,” you could take the fruits apart and spread them or plant them with ease.

In the fall and winter, you'll find fruits like these on sycamore trees.
Their use

Sycamores have provided a wide variety of uses to Man. They have been used as ornamental and shade trees. Their wood has been used for furniture, millwork, flooring and butcher blocks.

Where to find them

I wouldn’t consider sycamores to be common in eastern Niagara County. You’ll find them, but it will take some work.

They prefer wet (but not marshy) soils near stream banks and flood plains. So, to scout them out, look for creeks and streams – both small and large – and the telltale white bark.

There are some impressive stands along Eighteenmile Creek in the town of Newfane, both above Burt Dam (especially in the area of Ide Road) and below it (atop the steep, high banks).

If you do get a chance to see one of these magnificent trees it will be an unforgettable experience. Bring a camera — and a tape measure.

Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he thinks his sycamore tree will outlive even him. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at

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