Along the rivers and streams in Southeast Tennessee, there is one tree that stands out from the rest. In a winter world of brown and gray, the sycamore tree’s bright white bark is a stark contrast to its surroundings. This trait is why the sycamore is sometimes called "ghost tree." Its color isn't the only thing that makes it stand out, either. The American sycamore can grow to reach over 170 feet tall and over 10 feet in diameter, making it one of the largest trees found in our riparian forests.
The most commonly used characteristic for identifying the American sycamore is its bark. As the tree matures, it develops brownish-gray flaky bark that extends up for approximately 30 feet. This bark often breaks off into large and uneven chunks. From about 30 feet up until the top of the tree, the mature sycamores have white bark. Younger trees can have white bark starting at ground level. As the tree matures, it forms a hollow trunk.
American sycamores also have large and easily identifiable leaves. These palmate and serrate leaves can regularly reach 10 inches long and wide.
Sycamore trees also produce a fruit that hangs from the branches. As the fruit matures, white fluffy seeds — very similar to those produced by dandelions — are exposed and dispersed by wind.
The American sycamore has a huge range, but is primarily found along permanent bodies of water. The range extends from southern Canada southward to Florida and westward to Oklahoma.
The large hollow trunks of mature American sycamore trees are useful to a variety of animals in our region. Some animals, such as bears and bats, will overwinter in the huge trunks. Others, such as woodpeckers, owls, flycatchers, chickadees and wood ducks, will use these trees for nesting. The fruits and seeds are also important food sources for small birds, such as chickadees, juncos, and finches. The leaves and branches provide food for deer and beavers.
Historically, humans have used the American sycamore for many things. There are even historical records of humans living inside of the hollowed-out trunks. The sap can be used as a source of water, or boiled down and used as syrup. The wood has been used for building barns, cutting boards, cisterns, and houses. The inner bark of the sycamore tree was historically used to make a tea that treated dysentery, tuberculosis, coughs, and common colds.