Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Whose woods these are I just don’t know*

with 18 comments

Sycamores; click for greater detail.

When I went wandering through the woods in northwest Austin on December 20, I came upon the group of sycamores, Platanus occidentalis, shown above. Reputed to be the tallest of deciduous trees in America, the sycamore is known not only for its height but for its bark, which at a certain stage in the tree’s maturity peels off in pieces and leaves behind the near-white that you see here. That whiteness is present in all seasons, but only during the coldest months of the year, after the tree has shed its old leaves and before new ones grow out in the spring, does the bright inner bark become as conspicuous as it is when it shines through the otherwise mostly bleak winter woods.

As majestic as sycamores can be, veteran readers of this column have seen some saplings that are only a few feet tall. To learn more about sycamores, you can visit the website of The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center; to see the many places in the eastern United States where sycamores grow, you can consult the state-clickable map at the USDA website.


* The title is a reference to Robert Frost’s poem that begins “Whose woods these are I think I know.” In fact I don’t know who owns the unfenced land that includes these trees.

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 23, 2011 at 5:03 AM

18 Responses

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  1. Ah, one of my favorite poems and the Sycamore is a tree that represents great character to me. Nice words and a gorgeous blue sky……God Spede…jim

    Developing A New Image

    December 23, 2011 at 5:36 AM

    • I can see why you attribute great character to the majestic sycamore. As for the gorgeous sky, December 20 was a partly sunny day after days of overcast, so I took advantage of that bit of sun and the fleecy clouds to go out picture-taking.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 23, 2011 at 7:43 AM

  2. I like the perspective in your photo. Looking up through the trees, with or without leaves, is always a lovely view. To my eye, the Sycamore is the loveliest and most graceful of trees. In fact, they are my favorite. What makes me love them so? It is the smell of their leaves after a good rain.

    It is inevitable that we will eventually lose one of our biggest, and most beautiful, oaks here on the Farmlet. All the signs are there. I think I should start a Sycamore now, because it is said that “The best time to plant a new tree is 20 years ago, and the second best time is now.”

    ~ Lynda


    December 23, 2011 at 10:23 AM

    • I’m glad you like the convergent upward perspective, Lynda, and are a fan of sycamores. Thanks for alerting us to the smell of their wet leaves, which I’ve never noticed but will keep an eye out (or nose open) for.

      Sorry you’re losing one of your biggest oaks. The sycamore, which you love anyway, is a good choice for a replacement because it’s a fast-growing tree. I like your concluding quotation, which is new to me and certainly true.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 23, 2011 at 10:49 AM

  3. […] two days ago featured not the white snow that also played a big part near the end of the movie but several white-barked sycamore trees. Now you can think about these stately native trees of ours every time you watch the classic […]

  4. I’m fond of sycamores too. My childhood home was surrounded by them. It’s wonderful that you could capture them against the blue sky.


    December 26, 2011 at 9:53 AM

    • I’m glad that this brought back memories of your childhood home, Skip. The few hours of partly clear sky we had on December 20 drew me outdoors; I was grateful to have the blue and the wispy clouds to set off the trunks of the sycamores.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 26, 2011 at 10:11 AM

  5. Absolutely breathtaking, Steve. Whenever I come across sycamores, I stop and take it all in. I used to see many in my youth, here in the midwest. Not so much anymore.


    December 29, 2011 at 8:21 PM

    • I’m sorry that you’re no longer seeing a lot of sycamores where you are, Leslie; they’re quite common here in Austin, both by natural occurrence and because people have planted them along city streets. Just this morning I was wandering along a creek and photographed the upper part of one gleaming white in the sun.

      Have you ever painted any sycamores? If not, or not recently, perhaps a trip to Austin is in order.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 29, 2011 at 8:33 PM

  6. Such a striking photo – and one that would do as well as a snowy woods for Eric Whitacres’ musical setting of the Frost poem. It’s rather amazing that it’s still posted publicly, as there’s been a good bit of conflict about it, and new lyrics were written for the music.

    Still, your photo evoked it, and I enjoyed combining your image with the music in my mind.


    December 30, 2011 at 9:43 PM

    • Bright bark in lieu of snow — a fair trade. And the etymologist in me can’t help but notice that the name of the composer you mentioned, Whitacre, is really White Acre (where acre in older English also meant ‘field’). Thanks for the link to his piece, which was new to me, and which I listened to with both sets of words.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 31, 2011 at 12:59 AM

  7. […] majestic sycamore trees can be when their white bark shines in the sun, just have a look back at the post from December 23. To learn more about sycamores, you can visit the website of The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower […]

  8. Beautiful picture – I love looking up into trees. We have sycamores in Connecticut – they are huge and majestic, but the ones I see tend to be thicker around than the ones you found. I wonder if it has anything to do with the difference in climate…

    Barbara Rodgers

    January 13, 2012 at 3:38 PM

    • I wonder if the sycamores in Connecticut might be older on average than the ones here. As you suggested, the climate could also have something to do with it, as we get hotter temperatures and less rain than you do. Even though our sycamores often grow by creeks and ponds, those bodies of water can dry up completely when rain is scarce.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 13, 2012 at 5:31 PM

  9. […] One is the madrone. Another, as common in central Texas as the madrone is scarce, is the mighty sycamore. A third tree with peeling bark, the one you see here, is the Texas persimmon, Diospyros texana. […]

  10. These are very nice, and I like the vertical perspective showing appreciation for their tall, lanky bone-like forms.


    January 26, 2014 at 11:38 AM

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