California Sycamore
California Sycamore growing along the North Fork Kaweah River
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I’ve found that December is one of the best times to get out and go for a drive or a hike along the rivers and creeks of the Southwestern Sierra foothills.  Here’s my reasoning: It usually starts snowing in the higher elevations making outings up there more challenging, the foothills are pleasantly cool but generally not too cold, and the California Sycamore trees begin to show off their gorgeous autumn hues of orange and rust. 

California Sycamore (
Platanus racemosa) grow on the west slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains along streams and rivers below 3,000 feet in elevation.  They also grow in some locations in the Coast Range.  They typically are about 40-60 feet high but some specimens can get up to 100 feet tall and 10 feet in diameter.  They have a spreading, open crown made up of forking and often zig-zagging branches.  Their bark is greenish-gray when young but it continually flakes off and reveals a smooth white inner bark.  A sycamore’s upper branches are usually completely white and I think this makes the tree stand out beautifully against the clear blue skies of winter.  This also provides the perfect structure for displaying the tree’s leaves that turn a beautiful burnt orange color in mid- to late November and early December. 

The leaves of California Sycamores may remind you of large maple leaves; both are palmately lobed but sycamore leaves are much thicker and are arranged alternately along the twigs whereas maple leaves are opposite each other.  The leaves are 5-11 inches long and in the spring they are a bright green.  In springtime you can also find decorative clusters of greenish flowers amongst the leaves on the tree.  The flower clusters are round in shape and they develop into round spiky fruits about an inch in diameter.  These are often found hanging together like golf balls on a string.  The fruits often fracture and the seeds are wind dispersed.  Sometimes the fruits fall and float along a river or stream until they wash up on a bank and this is another way that new sycamores can establish themselves.  The young trees grow quickly if given enough sunlight.

Many bird species including Red-tailed Hawks, Hummingbirds, and Woodpeckers depend on a California Sycamore’s large canopy for nesting sites.  Native Americans used the sycamore’s strong branches for building.  And a large sycamore tree played a role in the establishment of this city of Los Angeles!  The native Gabrielino or Tongva people had a village called Yangna which was located near a huge California Sycamore Tree under which they held meetings.  Later the Spanish settlement that gave way to the pueblo of Los Angeles was located next to Yangna in sight of this sycamore tree.  The settlement was destroyed in 1815 by a large flood but the sycamore tree survived.  It later died in 1892 and was cut down and the rings of the tree were counted.  It was found that this tree was over 400 years old!

There are two other species of sycamore trees in the US: the Arizona Sycamore and the American Sycamore.  Arizona Sycamore trees grow in the Sonoran Desert and American Sycamore grow from the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi River.  Locally you can find California Sycamore trees growing profusely along the lower reaches of the Tule and Kaweah Rivers as well as the larger Kings and Kern Rivers.  They also grow at Kaweah Oaks Preserve near Visalia and here you can take the self guided Sycamore Trail and learn more about these beautiful trees and the other plants and wildlife that live amongst them.

More information:
Twin California Sycamores growing along Mill Creek
California Sycamores growing along the Marble Falls Trail
The California Sycamore under which Todd and I got married :)