Water Loving Trees - The Sycamores, Or Buttonwoods
( Originally Published 1927 )
Platoons occidentalis, Linn.
Our eastern buttonwood is a tree to which, in America, we supply the name sycamore. Its European counter-part is the plane tree of the Old World. It is one of the easiest trees to recognize, for its most prominent trait is fairly shouted at us from a distance, whenever one of these trees comes within the range of our vision. The smooth bark that covers the branches is thin, very brittle, and has the habit of flaking off in irregular plates, leaving white patches under these plates that contrast sharply with the dingy olive of the unshed areas. On old trunks the bark is reddish brown and breaks into small, irregular plates; but above, and out among the branches, the tree looks down-right untidy, and as though it had been splashed with whitewash by some careless painter.
White birches grow in copses in low ground, a whole regiment of their white stems slanting upward. But the ghostly sycamore is apt to stand alone along the river-courses, scattered among other water-loving trees. The tree is wayward in its branching habit, its twigs irregular and angular. When the leaves are gone, it is a distressed-looking object, dangling its seed-balls in the wind until the central, bony cob is bare, the seeds having all sailed away on their hairy parachutes.
In the warmer South our buttonwood is a stalwart, large-limbed tree of colossal trunk, that shelters oaks and maples under its protecting arms. And there are some large specimens on Long Island.
The buttonwood leaf in a general way resembles a maple's, being as broad as long, with three main lobes at the top. The leaf stem forms a tent over the bud formed in summer and containing the leafy shoot of the next year. The leaf scar, therefore, is a circle and the leaf base a hollow cone. At first a sheathing stipule, like a little leafy ruffle, grows at the base of each Ieaf, but this is shed before midsummer.
P. Orientalis, Linn.
The oriental plane is almost as familiar a tree as our native species, for it is planted as a street tree in every city and village, and is a favorite shade and lawn tree besides. The city of Washington has set the example and so has Philadelphia. One third of the street trees of Paris are plane trees.
The chief merits of this tree immigrant are its perfect hardiness, its fine, symmetrical, compact pyramid, its freedom from injury by smoke and dust, and its rapid growth in the poor soil of the parkings of city and village. In leaf and fruit and bark-shedding habit, it is easily recognized as a sycamore, though in this species more than one ball dangles from each stem.
The exactions of city life limit the number of tree species that will do well. Our native sycamore patiently endures the foul breath of factory chimneys, and helps, in the smallest, downtown city parks, to make green oases in burning deserts of brick and stone pavements. But it is subject to the ravages of insect and fungous enemies to a greater extent than the oriental species.