Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

December 12, 2008

Deck the Halls with Buttonwood Seed Balls…

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:28 pm

I’ve always thought that winter Sycamore trees look like they are decorated for the Christmas season. These mosaic barked trees are currently adorned with festive arrangements of ornamental spheres dangling from long cords. Although this decor may be nothing more than a practical display of seeds, these displays present a Martha Stewart-like sense of holiday style. Even the bark has “that certain something” about it.

Perhaps I should back up a bit and introduce the Sycamore before I go any further. These stately trees stand out clearly against the naked gray backdrop of leafless trees (see here) which makes cold season identification relatively easy. The upper branches and trunk are smooth and nearly white – unlike any other tree in the surrounding woods. Further down on the trunk the bark breaks up into a random patchwork of greens, creams, and browns (see here) and settles into a even rough brown at the base. A good memory tool for remembering this tree is to think of the flaking bark as making it look “sick.”  A lot of flaking bark makes it look “sick-a-more.” Get it?

To find one in the wild you’ll need to be standing pretty close to a riverbank, which is a circuitous way to say that they prefer growing in riverine habitats. Another important Sycamore feature is the fact that they get quite big and are frequently the largest tree in sight. In the “old days”, early pioneers would record sightings of massive trees towering well over 150 feet in height and having trunks up to 13 feet or more in diameter. One hollow trunk was once used as the structure for a travelling saloon on wheels.

Most of these monster trees are long gone, but there are quite a few hefty examples in Monroe County and elsewhere in lower Michigan. I recently read that the world’s largest tree stump happens to be from a Sycamore and can be found in Kokomo, Indiana. The hollow stump is 57 feet in circumference and is now encased within a protective shelter. It once housed a telephone booth and, according to the web site,  could accommodate 13 people (all waiting for the phone I presume). While you are there, by the way, you can pay a visit to “Old Ben” – the world’s largest preserved steer – who is housed nearby.  But, I digress.

The detail of this present discussion are those interesting looking seed balls that hang from the branches. Alternate names, such as Buttonwood and Buttonball Tree, are very descriptive of this trait. Seen up close (see here and here), these structures are revealed to be spiny balls connected to the twig via a tough, flexible stalk. Hundreds of slender seeds are attached at the center to a small interior sphere about the size of a cherry pit. Each individual seed is encapsulated within a hard casing like a sunflower seed. This type of seed is called an achene among the botanically elite in case you wanted to know (they may ask you this when you go to Kokomo). Eventually the seeds slough off and fall to the ground, leaving the weathered little mini-balls to tough out the rest of the season.

There is one more Sycamore detail worth relating. The buds of this species are unique in that they develop within, and are completely surrounded by, the base of the leaf during the growing season. When the leaf falls off, the exposed winter bud is completely surrounded by the leaf scar (see here). Most plants have a leaf scar located under the bud. I will admit this fact can not match up with Kokomo’s claim to being the first place where fins were put on aerial bombs. But, considering that sycamores have been around for 100 million years, anything they do is worth paying attention to.

I did put one of these seed balls on a Christmas Tree as a way of putting my earlier statement to the test (see above).  It makes an artificial tree look a little less artificial, don’t you think?  Also, another nice thing about a Sycamore ornament is that it will fall apart after the holiday season is over. This eliminates the storage problem.

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