Why I love the not-easily-loved Sycamore

I love tree-lined avenues. Roads with stately trees on both sides form a canopy over the pavement and sidewalks and add a sense of home.

I have never lived in a suburb or city home, but I imagine those who have get satisfaction from driving down their own tree-lined street toward home. I am sure the feelings of nostalgia and the sense of being sheltered by these signs of welcome is the same no matter where you live. Trees are often the sentries of our sanctuaries, so when landscaping, it's important to pick the right kind.

Of course, not everyone has room for their own landscape trees. That’s one reason why public parks and tree-planted roads are so necessary.

Some of my favorite "public" trees in Asheville are located at Beaver Lake on Merrimon Avenue — sycamore trees, or platanus x acerifolia, more commonly known as the London Plane tree. These trees don't have the magnificent fall color that the sweet gum or sugar maple does. Generally by June, its leaves start to look shabby. Already the London Plane trees at Beaver Lake have lost over half their leaves, refusing to put on a pretty show for fall.

Sycamores are also famous for losing branches easily in strong wind and for dropping fruits called achenes (syncarp of achenes to be exact). They can be up to an inch or more in diameter and can make quite a mess. Though there are many reasons to not love sycamores, the reason I love them is their fascinating bark.

The sycamore tree has what is referred to as exfoliating bark. The bark is not as elastic as it is on other trees and so, as the sycamore grows, the bark doesn’t expand — it peels off. If you look upward at a sycamore tree, especially one in full sun, the branches are almost white, or in the case of the London Plane tree, a creamy yellow. That’s because this tree is a cross between the American Sycamore and the Asian Sycamore, which gives it that creamy yellow color. In some cases the whole tree is “peeled” and yellow. It almost looks naked, and often people think something is wrong with the tree. They wonder if it is sick or been harmed by some chemical, or even vandalized. It's just the habit of the tree.

There are many trees with the same tendency: River birches, paperbark maples whose exfoliated color is cinnamon brown, Crapemyrtles — one of our favorite blooming shrubs — and oak-leaf hydrangea. The exfoliating is referred to by landscape designers as giving the plant a "multiple effect." You don’t just have a tree, you have one with an interesting growth habit — one a passer-by will notice.

If you have room for your very own landscape trees, picking out the right one requires a lot of thought. What is the life span of the tree? There will come a day when that tree needs to come down and another one planted. Is the tree susceptible to the ravages of pollution? Some trees are labeled “urban tolerant,” while some can’t handle the pollution. If you have to choose, do you want fall color or spring bloom? What's your tolerance for clean-up? If the tree has messy fruits or shedding branches, whose job is it to clean that up? And you thought a tree was just a tree.

There's the visual aspect, too. Trees are categorized by designers according to their four-season interest, and many other factors. Do they have pretty fall color? Do they have a showy bloom in spring or summer? Is their architecture interesting? What is architecture?

Think of a dogwood. Dogwoods have a beautiful canopy and branching habit. It has a pretty shape, in other words. If you combine that with their wonderful fall color and gorgeous spring bloom then you have a four season plant — something that is interesting to look at all year long. It is hard to find all that in one tree, but it's possible.

As for the sycamore, it has its issues. It is called “sicky more” by some because it is susceptible to so many diseases. Still, it has traditionally been a tree of choice for street planting. It grows 75 to 100 feet tall (in a day when there were no power lines or development, it didn’t matter how tall a tree got).

Today, most city arborists probably wouldn’t pick a London Plane tree for a tree-lined avenue because of their size and constant clean-up. But I'm happy someone chose them for Beaver Lake. I can’t walk by one without rubbing its smooth trunk or picking up large pieces of peeled bark to take home to my husband, a gift he always appreciates.

— Cinthia Milner gardens in Leicester.

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2 thoughts on “Why I love the not-easily-loved Sycamore

  1. NCgardener

    I can’t wait to drive by Beaver Lake to check out the bark on those London Plane trees. Perhaps Cinthia’s husband should plant an allee of the London Planes for her–what a great gift that would be from him to her! Or, better yet, he could take her and the children by “plane” to “London” to tour some beautiful English gardens. I’ll be waiting to read the great articles she’s sure to write while there.

  2. Ramey

    I too love tree-lined streets (and especially driveways!) I also think I love her husband! Takes a special man to appreciate such a thoughtful gift as pieces of peeled tree bark. They sound like a match made in heaven….sigh….

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