Here in Western Pennsylvania, we have a wonderful set of scenic rivers that lend themselves to kayaking, whitewater rafting, and overnight kayak camping trips. This is one of my favorite pastimes, especially as climate change has had the tick population skyrocket in the last 10 or so years and pushed us into more heatwaves. One of the quintessential features of our waterways here are the Sycamore trees. Sycamores are easy to spot even at a distance: the mottled bark, dark on the bottom and giving way in patches to light white tips; the craggy and interesting growth formation, making the trees appear whimsical and distinct. As you kayak through many parts of Western PA on our larger rivers, you will encounter these little islands that are held there by many old, weathered and small sycamores. As you drive through the countryside, you will find many river valleys just full of sycamores of various sizes and heights. Sycamores are synonymous with moving water here, and they are truly a delight to experience.
This post is part of my Sacred Trees of Eastern North America series–here you can learn about the many wonderful trees upon our landscape. In this series, I explore the magic, mythology, herbal, cultural, and divination uses, with the goal of eventually producing a larger work that explores many of our unique trees located on the North American East Coast (which I hope to have completed by early 2022) For my methods using ecology, the doctrine of signatures, and human uses, you can see this post. Other trees in this series include Dogwood, Spruce, Spicebush, Rhododendron, Witch Hazel, Staghorn Sumac, Chestnut, Cherry, Juniper, Birch, Elder, Walnut, Eastern White Cedar, Hemlock, Sugar Maple, Hawthorn, Hickory, Beech, Ash, White Pine, Black Locust, and Oak. For information on how to work with trees spiritually, you can see my Druid Tree Working series including finding the face of the tree, seeking the grandmother trees, tree relationships, communicating on the outer planes, communicating on the inner planes, establishing deep connections with trees, working with urban trees, tree energy, seasonal workings, and helping tree spirits pass.
Sycamore is often called buttonwood, buttonball, American sycamore, American Planetree, western Plane, Occidental Plane, or water beech, has a native range stretching from Vermont to the bottom of Georgia and across the midwest into Texas, Oklahoma, and Iowa. Thus, it spans most of the eastern seaboard and midwest and is quite common throughout its range. It has also adapted to life outside of its range and thus can be found in other parts of the US, Mexico, Australia, and Argentina.
The Sycamore tree is the largest deciduous tree located in Eastern North America -they can typically grow up to 130 or more feet high and get to more than 6 feet in diameter. The “Buttonball Tree” is the largest Sycamore in the world at present. Buttonball tree is located in Sunderland, Massacutsess, and is 174 feet high and 4 feet in diameter. Pennsylvania’s largest sycamore is 148 feet tall and is actually located in one of my favorite kayaking spots–a wilderness Island on the Allegheny River in North-western Pennsylvania. The Allegheny Sycamore along with her millions of siblings line the Allegheny river and help control erosion.
The Eastern Sycamore is a beautiful tree that is very easy to identify because of its distinctive bark pattern–the darker bark flakes off in puzzle piece shapes to reveal lighter bark underneath, giving the tree a look almost like a jersey cow! I love the way the sycamores grow–at odd angles, with strange knobs on the branches and exposed roots. They really have a quite magical and whimsical appearance. Sycamore often grows with divided trunks or secondary trunks as they age, and has a very open spread of limbs branching out.
In The Book of Swamp and Bog, John Eastman notes that the sycamore can grow up to 70 feet in only 17 years, making it both very fast-growing and yet long-lived. It is shade intolerant, which is part of why it grows so well on our sunny waterways. He also notes that it is common for mature trees to develop hollow portions within their trunks where the inner wood decays. This creates a great home for opossum, raccoon, wood duck, owls, birds, bats, and more. Sycamore is often found with other lowland species, including Willow, Eastern Cottonwood, Silver Maple, American Elm, Ironwood, and Elder.
The sycamore has small flowers in round (globose) heads that bloom April – June depending on the region, and the flowers give way to a hanging seed pod that is a tight round ball that dangles from the tree. The seed ball persists throughout fall and winter and is about 1″ or so across. In the winter, you can see the sycamores with thousands of seed balls dangling, looking mightily festive! The leaves resemble maple leaves but with less pronounced lobes; the leaves are usually 5-10″ long with 3-5 lobed areas.
One of the threats to Sycamore is the anthracnose canker, which was introduced by importing Plantaus Orientalis (the Oriental Plane). Plantaus Orientalis is very resistant to anthracnose, but American Sycamore is not. While the canker will not kill the tree outright, it will often defoliate the tree in spring. If you see a “witches broom” on a sycamore (a huge mass of tangled branches) this is one sign that the tree is battling the anthracnose canker.
One of the major functions of the Sycamore ecologically is to control erosion–the extensive root structures, even among small patches of tiny sycamore, will hold hillsides, banks, and islands in place from the fiercest floods. The small seedlings will grow all over small islands in rivers and all along banks, and can handle being completely submerged during seasonal flooding and will bounce right back once the floods are over. This is a tree that understands how to endure the rise and fall of the rivers and is evolved to do so. While we do have willows in the region, they are more found along with areas of standing water like lakes or marshes and are not as dominant in this function as the mighty Sycamore.
The American sycamore once had a much wider range–it once grew abundantly in the forests of Greenland and the Arctic in the Cretaceous (145-66 million years ago) and Phanerozoic eras (66 million to 2.6 million).
American Sycamore was once extensively planted as a shade tree in cities and can handle a city environment. However, due to the effects of the anthracnose canker and the defoliation that the canker causes, London Plane (resistant) is often planted instead.
The wood of the sycamore is heavy and quite hard, but also difficult to work. It is coarse-grained and twisted, but brittle. Traditionally, this is the wood used for butcher blocks as well as barrels, boxes, crates, drums, pails, and various kinds of storage devices. Occasionally, it is also used to make furniture, siding, and musical instruments. I couldn’t find this in any of my sources, but it strikes me that people also made buttons from this tree, hence the buttonwood name. Sometimes these folk names are a really good indication of what the tree was once used for.
According to Eric Sloane in A Reverence for Wood, the Sycamore was used extensively by eastern indigenous peoples to create huge dugout canoes that could hold 10-30 or more people. They used massive sycamore trunks for this task and would chip and burn away the wood.
Another human use of the Sycamore is also tied to water–the Sycamore is one tree that can be tapped in the spring as an emergency clean water source and also for boiling down the sap. While I have not boiled the sap, Euell Gibbons has. According to stalking the wild asparagus, Gibbons collected copious amounts of sap from the tree and boiled it down, getting a scant amount of sap that tasted like bad molasses. So after his report, I’m not too keen to try!
Beyond these uses, the American Sycamore does not appear in the magical sources I frequently consult, including those in the western occult tradition, herbal material medicas, American hoodoo, PA dutch traditions, and more. There are historical references to other Plantaus species that are common to Europe or to the Biblical Sycamore (which is a fig tree), but there does not appear to be any magical tradition based in North America for the sycamore. I don’t want to present this information on other sycamores as it does not apply to American Sycamore, so I will instead base the rest of this based on the ecological and traditional folk functions of the tree.
The Magic and Divination Of the Sycamore Tree
Because of the lack of a magical or even herbal tradition of this tree, I am going to draw upon this tree’s ecological function to consider how we might use it for magic and divination practices.
Helping us navigate “watery” issues. In druidry, the realm of water (tied to the west) is tied to our emotions and mental selves. Sycamore, being traditionally both located on the waterways and also used for large boats and navigation, is a perfect tree to help us work with our emotions productively, understand our emotions, and navigate emotional issues with others.
Dealing with trauma and intense emotions. A second feature of the sycamore ecologically is its ability to control for erosion and handle major floods. We can translate that into a magical ability to help us in really difficult emotional situations: in a situation where there’s an emotional flood (a breakdown, a trauma, an explosive event, etc), Sycamore is a tree that can be used to hold fast to, to hold onto something beyond the flood. And once the emotional flood recedes, Sycamore is a first-rate healing tree to help you recover.
Shadow work. The peeling and intricate bark of the sycamore, the fact that sycamore often goes hollow in older age, and the fact that it has been used to create numerous water-faring and water-holding vessels also speak to this tree’s ability to help us work with our deeper emotions and shadow selves.
Now that I’ve written so much about sycamore, I’m itching to get out on my kayak so I can admire the sycamores that line all of our waterways and spend time with them! I would love to hear your own stories and information on the American Sycamore tree! 🙂
PS: I will be taking some time off of blogging for the next 4 weeks while I finish writing TreeLore Oracle / North American Sacred Trees book project as well as working on AODA’s Apprentice Guide and New Candidate Guides in preparation for releasing our curriculum update. I look forward to returning in mid-August! Have a great Lughnasadh!