Platanus occidentalis – The Sycamore Tree


The American Sycamore Tree (American sycamore, eastern sycamore, buttonwood or buttonball tree) is native to the central and eastern United States, growing in all states east of the great plains except for Minnesota.


Sycamore leaves resemble maples, however the branching is alternate and maples are opposite.

It’s botanical name, Platanus occidentalis, originates from “platy” Greek for broad, and “occidere” Latin for “to set, as in the sun,” meaning of the west. Sycamores are generally regarded to be the most massive tree indigenous to eastern North America.
Sycamores grow quickly and can live for hundreds of years.


This tree was fairly young, so the bark was just starting to grow into its camouflaged skin.

Their bark have a camouflage pattern of peeling bark, like tan, gray and brown puzzle pieces which eventually turn to a smooth white on mature trunks and branches. They have large, stiff leaves resembling maples in shape, and make excellent shade trees for urban settings. Sycamores prefer sandy soils along streams, flood plains and rivers.


This tree gives the winter landscape such grand texture.

The non-showy, monoecious flowers appear in small rounded clusters in April. Male flowers are yellow / female flowers red. In fall, fuzzy, long-stalked, spherical fruiting balls ripen to brown in October and persist into early winter. Each fruiting ball contains numerous tiny seed-like fruits called achenes. Fruiting balls slowly fall apart as autumn progresses, scattering their seeds in downy tufts in the wind.


It looks like Christmas ornaments are hanging from the branches.

Native Americans used the hollow trunks for dugout canoes and the wood, though somewhat difficult to work, was used in the past for tubs, casks, wooden washing machine parts, and cisterns. One use that survives today is for butchers’ blocks, where sycamore’s notorious resistance to splitting is not a defect but an vital feature.

I loooove folklore. Here is a story from the Cherokee Indians, retold by Ms. Judson.

By Katharine Berry Judson in 1913
In the beginning there was no fire and the world was cold. Then the Thunders, who lived up in Galun’lati, sent their lightning and put fire into the bottom of a hollow sycamore tree which grew on an island. The animals knew it was there because they could see the smoke coming out at the top, but they could not get to it on account of the water, so they held a council to decide what to do. This was a long, long time ago.
Every animal was anxious to go after the fire. Raven offered. He was large and strong, so he was sent first. He flew high and far across the water, and lighted on the sycamore tree. There he perched, wondering what to do next. Then he looked at himself. The heat had scorched his feathers black. Raven was so frightened he flew back across the water without any fire.
Then, little Wa-hu-hu, the Screech Owl, offered to go. He flew high and far across the water and perched upon a hollow treeAs he sat there looking into the hollow tree, wondering what to do, a blast of hot air came up and hurt his eyes. Screech Owl was frightened. He flew back as best he could, because he could hardly see. That is why his eyes are red even to this day.
Then Hooting Owl and the Horned Owl went, but by the time they reached the hollow tree, the fire was blazing so fiercely that the smoke nearly blinded them. The ashes carried up by the breeze made white rings around their eyes. So they had to come home without fire. Therefore they have white rings around their eyes.
None of the rest of the birds would go to the fire. Then Uk-su-hi, the racer snake, said he would go through the water and bring back fire. He swam to the island and crawled through the grass to the tree. Then he went into the tree by a small hole at the bottom. But the heat and smoke were dreadful. The ground at the bottom of the tree was covered with hot ashes. The racer darted back and forth trying to get off the ashes, and at last managed to escape through the same hole by which he had entered. But his body had been burned black. Therefore he is now the black racer. And that is why the black racer darts around and doubles on his track as if trying to escape.
Then great Blacksnake, “The Climber,” offered to go for fire. He was much larger than the black racer. Blacksnake swam over to the island and climbed up the tree on the outside, as the blacksnake always does, but when he put his head down into the hole the smoke choked him so that he fell into the burning stump. Before he could climb out, he, too, was burned black.
So the birds, and the animals, and the snakes held another council. The world was still very cold. There was no fire. But all the birds, and the snakes, and all the four-footed animals refused to go for fire. They were all afraid of the burning sycamore.
Then Water Spider said she would go. This is not the water spider that looks like a mosquito, but the other one — the one with black downy hair and red stripes on her body. She could run on top of the water, or dive to the bottom.
The animals said, “How can you bring back fire? ”
But Water Spider spun a thread from her body and wove it into a tusti bowl which she fastened on her back. Then she swam over to the island and through the grass to the fire. Water Spider put one little coal of fire into her bowl, and then swam back with it.
That is how fire came to the world. And that is why Water Spider has a tusti bowl on her back.

About the Author: Excerpted from the book Myths and Legends of the Great Plains, by Katharine Berry Judson, 1913.


© Ilex – Midwestern Plants

10 thoughts on “Platanus occidentalis – The Sycamore Tree

  1. Lovely story, and very interesting facts about the sycamore. I remember playing with their helicopter blade seeds growing up in UK (tho it may have been a slightly different tree?) 🙂


  2. Great post and great story to include. We have some huge old sycamores that grow in the bottoms near where we live. They are such beautiful trees. If you take a spring cutting of the new growth, they sprout roots in water fairly easily. 🙂


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