Oh, the moon is fair tonight along the Wabash,
From the fields comes the breath of new-mown hay;
Through the sycamores the candle lights are gleaming
On the banks of the Wabash, far away.
On the Banks of the Wabash
When my in-laws bought a new bungalow in 1928, they wanted a fast-growing tree to shade it from the western sun. They planted a Sycamore or American Planetree (Platanus occidentalis) in their postage stamp-sized front yard, and, as promised, the tree grew quickly. They didn’t know that the Sycamore is the largest hardwood tree in America, which will sometimes grow taller than 100’ and occasionally as tall as 150’ (Forest Trees of Illinois, 8th Edition, Robert Mohlenbrock). While the tree did provide instant shade, it was the wrong tree in the wrong place. Not only was it too large for the space it was in, the huge, maple-like leaves had to be raked up, not just in fall, but every spring, as well, as anthracnose attacked the developing leaves and stems and defoliated the tree.
The Sycamore is a picturesque, massive, rugged tree with a wide-spreading open crown, but its most outstanding feature is its beautiful mottled bark on the trunk and lower branches. The smooth, greenish gray outer bark peels off in patches revealing a creamy white inner bark, an extraordinarily lovely effect.
It is decorated in fall and early winter with 1” globes of seed clusters that dangle like Christmas tree ornaments from long stalks at the ends of the twigs.
While it is not recommended for growing in tight spaces, it has been planted in parkways in older neighborhoods in the town I live in and seems to do well.
(These photos were taken in February, 2010)
It is even more stunning, especially for winter effect, in its native habitat. It is indigenous to floodplains, bottomland, and along the banks of streams and rivers, where it grows in the company of Silver Maple, River Birch, Honey Locust, Black Walnut, and Elderberry. If you have a large property and can meet its cultural requirements, plant Sycamore in view of your windows to enjoy all winter long.
Dick Young says in Kane County Wild Plants & Natural Areas that it is found in the southern half of Kane County, but I live in the northen half. Quite frankly, I have never seen it growing in the wild. Have any of you seen it in its native habitat? If so, do you have pictures to share?
The Miami Indians of Ohio and Indiana soaked Sycamore seed balls in bear oil and used them for candles (James Alexander Thom, The Red Heart).