Sycamore trees stood sentinel on earth long before humans appeared. They have back dropped human history and inspired people to survive devastating tragedies like September 11, 2001.
Paleobotanists have dated sycamore trees to be over 100 million years old and some sycamore trees can live for 500-600 years. The bark of the American Sycamore tree shows the process of exfoliation or shedding its bark, more openly than any other tree. The bark of the American Sycamore flakes off in huge sheets, leaving the surface speckled in greenish- white, gray and brown. The bark tissue has a rigid texture, unlike the bark of other trees, so it can’t stretch to accommodate the growth of the wood underneath. The sycamore tree sheds its bark to make way for the new growth underneath.
Hippocrates, Ancient Egyptians and the Sycamore Tree
The sycamore tree has broad leaves that look like maple leaves. Sycamore leaves are very large with 3 to 5 leaf lobes and are often 7 to 8 inches long and wide. The name of the tree comes from the Greek word sukomoras which is a native Mediterranean fig tree. According to legend, Hippocrates taught students medicine under the leafy canopy of a sycamore tree on the Island of Cos.
Growing quickly and soaking up sun, the sycamore often divides into two or more trunks near the ground. Ancient Egyptians used sycamore trees to make wood monuments and bases for artillery units.
The American Sycamore Tree – Native Americans and Valley Forge
The fruit of the sycamore tree is a woody ball that ripens in October and grows through the winter until it breaks up into many small seeds. The American sycamore bears its seed balls singly on each stringy stalk. Each seed has a tuft of brown hairs that allows the wind to scatter it. Sycamores have both male and female flowers, so every tree bears fruit. Native Americans often used the entire trunk of the sycamore tree to make dugout canoes. Some of their canoes were 65 feet long.
Homesick English colonists likely named the sycamore tree because its broad leaves reminded them of the English sycamore. Some tree lovers call the American sycamore “ghost trees” because they have brilliant white branches in the upper part of the crown which are a result of leaves falling from them. Sycamore trees sometimes grow oddly shaped canopies.
Sycamore trees have also back dropped odd quirks in human history. One of these odd quirks of human history happened to the Lafayette Sycamore tree at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. The Lafayette Sycamore is believed to be 275-325 years old, and its age means that it would have been part of the winter encampment of 1777-1778. Oral tradition has it that soldiers using its branches for firewood or poles may have created its unique shape.
The Sycamore Tree at Antietam
The wood of the sycamore is hard, and has a flaky appearance. It was used to make cabinets, furniture, boxes, and barrels. Supply wagons brought wooden boxes and wooden barrels of food to the Union and Confederate armies at Antietam.
A sapling of a sycamore tree grew next to Burnside Bridge which spanned Antietam Creek on the morning of September 17,1862, when 12,000 Union men tried to cross it. For three and one half hours, a scant 450 Georgia sharpshooters positioned on a bluff opposite the creek repelled the repeated Union charges.
Over 22,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed that day at Burnside Bridge and elsewhere at the Battle of Antietam. Today the fully grown Sycamore tree is called the Witness Sycamore in honor of Burnside Bridge.
The Theresienstadt Tree of Life
The fruit of the sycamore is a woody ball that ripens in the fall. In the winter the woody ball breaks up into hundreds of small seeds, with tufts of brown hairs, which get scattered by the wind. A few species of birds feed on the seeds.
A sixty foot high and thirty foot wide sycamore tree grows in Prague, Czechoslovakia, on the site where the crematorium at Theresienstadt once stood. It is an etz chaim- tree of life. Six seeds from that tree traveled to the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.
The story of the seeds began on the Jewish Arbor Day, TuB-Shevat, in 1943, when a guard smuggled a tiny sycamore seeding into the children’s barracks. With the help of their teacher the children planted the seed in their courtyard. They watered it with their meager water rations and the seed sprouted. When seedling tenders were sent to the gas chamber, others took their place.
By the time the camp was liberated in 1945, the sycamore had reached a height of five feet. The children replanted it near the crematorium where the ashes of 38,000 Jews were scattered. They left a sign at its base that translated, ” As the branches of this tree, so the branches of our people!” It is called The Theresienstadt Tree of Life .
Jewish leaders brought six seeds from the tree to San Francisco because they hoped to sprout new sycamore trees from them.
Stephen Frank’s Story
Stephen Frank was eight years old when he was liberated from Theresienstadt, a few days before he was scheduled to be exterminated. Now 72, and living in England, he returned to the former concentration camp in 1996, and collected some of the seeds from the tree. He planted the saplings from the tree at St. Philip’s School in Chessington, England, to commemorate the United Nations International Day of Peace on September 21st of every year. The sapling is one of about 600 direct descendants of the Tree of Life planted across the world, including one outside of Israel’s main Holocaust Center and at sites in Washington DC, San Francisco and Philadelphia.
The sycamore is New York City’s tallest street tree and is the most common tree in Brooklyn, New York. When the World Trade Center towers collapsed on September 11, 2001, debris toppled a giant sycamore tree that had grown in the churchyard of St. Paul’s Chapel at Broadway and Fulton Streets for almost 100 years. Rescue workers discovered the uprooted tree lying on a narrow path in the churchyard. The way it fell protected the historic tombstones and no wreckage touched the chapel.
Artist Steven Tobin, who is known for his root sculptures, borrowed the 600 pound stump and its remaining root from St. Paul’s and made a mold of the stump from the tree. With other tree segments he created a large sculpture that he calledTrinity Root to stand as a testament to life and humanity and tomorrow.
And the sycamore tree continues to shed its bark to make way for the new growth underneath.
A Natural History of North American Trees, Donald Culross Peattie, Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2007.
Theresienstadt: Hitler’s Gifts to the Jews. University of North Carolina Press, 1991
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