Skeleton Trees

By Gladys J. Richter, photographs by Noppadol Paothong | October 14, 2014
From Missouri Conservationist: Nov 2014

March madness for trout and spring fever for crappie have long passed, and my light rod and tackle have been replaced by heavier line, sinkers, and some hard-to-come-by night crawlers. I am in the mood for a good fighting fish, yet so far all it has been is two nibbling bluegill and a turtle. I set my rod on a forked stick and take in the sights and sounds along the lazy Gasconade River.

Across the river stand at least a dozen sycamores, or skeleton trees, as I like to call them, with their large trunks of peeling, paper-like bark, and chalk-white upper-canopy branches. Working away at one of those trunks is a pileated woodpecker, Missouri’s largest woodpecker species. Perhaps it is after a tasty insect grub just beneath the sycamore’s bark. Upon another nearby sycamore, on a branch over the water’s edge, sits an eastern phoebe. This tiny insect-eating bird looks even smaller in contrast to the towering tree.

Giants Among Us

Sycamores are some of the largest living things you will find in Missouri. Definitely trees that would make a sound if they were to fall in the woods. When it comes to size, they are champions. While certainly not as large as the famous redwood sequoias of California, sycamores possess the height, girth, and canopy to make one perk up and take notice.

In Polk County stands one of Missouri’s largest trees — a sycamore measuring 27 feet and 9 inches in trunk circumference and a total champion score of 457 points. For a while this tree reigned as number one in the state. It was only recently surpassed as the biggest by an eastern cottonwood tree with a score of 458. Another Missouri sycamore was documented with a crown spread measuring more than half an acre in size. That is a lot of shade!

Prior to becoming our first U.S. President, George Washington wrote in his journal about a couple of large sycamore trees he viewed while canoeing. One measured almost 45 feet around, while the other was nearly 31 feet.

The American sycamore grows naturally alongside creeks and rivers, upon sandy gravel bars, and in rich bottomland forests east of the Rocky Mountains. Its rapid growth and ability to adapt to urban settings have made it a popular tree for planting in city parks as a shade tree and in other landscape designs. Since it was first cultivated in 1640, many different varieties have been created from the original native sycamore. Areas with saturated soils often prohibit the growth of many species of trees, but not sycamores. They thrive where it is wet for most of the year.

A few sycamores have held places of historical significance. It has been said that the New York Stock Exchange began beneath a sycamore tree with the signing of the “Buttonwood Agreement.”

In their natural riparian environment, sycamores can grow over 100 feet tall and are often found in association with other bottomland trees such as elm, ash, silver maple, and black willow. While their size and light-colored bark are probably their most easily identified characteristics, sycamores have many other fascinating features.

Sycamore Seasons

Tucked away within the thick petioles of sycamore leaves are next year’s buds, which are encapsulated in a sticky covering. The palmately shaped leaves are bright green on top and lighter underneath. Each leaf can measure between 3 and Sycamores can grow over 100 feet tall and are often found  in association with other bottomland trees such as elm, ash, silver maple, and black willow.

With cool autumn temperatures these leaves turn ochre yellow to tan-brown. Their leaf litter creates quite a crunch underfoot as one hikes along rivers and creeks in search of fall fishing, birding, or nature-viewing opportunities.

Sycamores are classified as monoecious, which means that they produce both male and female flowers on the same tree. From late April to early June, rounded clusters of green and red flowers hang from slender stems awaiting fertilization.

Their perfect, globe-shaped fruits are composed of hundreds of individual, fuzzy, tufted seeds called achenes. They may be found dangling like Christmas decorations from early September well into late winter. When ripe, the brown ball breaks down to send the seeds upon the wind like tiny parachutes in all directions. Many seeds are carried downstream to eventually reach new ground and germinate into seedlings. It is hard to believe that the makings of such a large tree start out inside that tiny seed.

On their way to becoming skeleton trees, young sycamores pass through a camouflage stage. As they rapidly grow and expand their trunks, the saplings begin to split and slough off their outer bark layers, revealing a mottled green, tan, and gray pattern. With age, their pattern changes into a gray to bone-white coloration.

From Buttons to Bureaus

Buttonwood is another name for the sycamore, due to its wood being used in earlier times for the production of wooden buttons. Buttonwood is just one of many common names sycamores carry. Planetree and buttonball are also frequently used to reference this species. Its scientific name is Platanus occidentalis.

Its close-grained wood is heavy and difficult to split. While not a good candidate for construction lumber, the wood is useful in the timber industry. Crates, butcher blocks, particleboard, interior trim, flooring, and furniture have all been made from sycamore trees.

Habitat Heroes

Like our mighty oaks, sycamores are susceptible to the anthracnose fungus, which defoliates the trees and weakens their defenses against other threats such as insect invasion. The healthiest trees survive to grow new leaves after an attack by anthracnose. Their overall growth may be hindered by the effects of this fungus.

However, despite threats from such diseases as anthracnose, sycamore populations in Missouri are doing well. They stand proudly over our river ways providing shelter and food for wildlife.

In Missouri, it is estimated that more than 95 percent of the great blue heron breeding rookeries are found in the open crowns of sycamore trees. Composed of a colony of several bulky stick nests, these rookeries afford protection for the new generation of heron chicks.

Sycamore seeds are eaten by many songbirds including chickadees and American goldfinches. It has been said that the now extinct Carolina parakeet relished the seeds. Today, one can only imagine the sight of colorful parakeets feasting among the white branches and large green leaves of sycamores growing along the banks of Missouri’s waterways.

From their large branches to their hollow trunks with peeling bark, sycamore trees provide homes for animals such as eagles, warblers, chimney swifts, bats, raccoons, and flying squirrels. Very large trees with hollow bases may become dens for black bears.

Cavity-nesting birds are greatly benefited by sycamores. Trees with open cavities are used by barred owls, great crested flycatchers, and wood ducks. With the arrival of spring comes the newly hatched wood duck young. These ducklings bravely jump like tiny paratroopers from their sycamore nests to the water below.

Even in death, sycamores continue to protect a great many species. A fallen sycamore creates habitat for fish and other aquatic life. Turtles bask in the sunlight upon the partially submerged trunks of sycamores, while native crayfish excavate gravel alongside the massive skeleton to create a refuge from hungry predators.

Undoubtedly, many fishhooks are snagged and imbedded in the sycamore skeletons submerged in my beloved Gasconade River. Come next summer, you will probably find me leaning against one of those big old skeleton trees, just waiting for the next strike on my fishing line.

Champion Trees

Tree scientists have come up with a standard formula that allows us to measure and document these giants. In Missouri, points are assigned to champion trees on the basis of height, trunk circumference, and crown spread. The tree must also be a native or naturalized species of the state to qualify. Missouri maintains a list of its largest trees in its Champion Tree Program database. A current list of the state’s champion trees and information on how to measure and nominate a tree may be viewed on the Department of Conservation’s Missouri State Champion Trees page at

This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Nichole LeClair Terrill
Managing Editor - vacant
Art Director - Cliff White
Staff Writer/Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler