The Sycamore That’s Not a Sycamore

One tree I really enjoy in the winter is the sycamore.  It’s a tree that has a dramatic appearance even without its leaves.  Its mottled bark and the whiteness of its spreading limbs make it stand out among its rather drab neighbors—especially when outlined against surrounding evergreens.  Big ones are truly so majestic that even children often ask what they are when they see them. [Photo source]

Having just returned from a whirlwind Thanksgiving trip with Marge and our oldest son, Greg, to visit our youngest son and his wife in Columbia, SC (Dave and Ruth) images of beautiful sycamore’s lining the French Broad River and other lowland settings are still fresh in my mind.  Sadly, so are images of the princess tree and the tree of heaven, which are not as regal or divine as their names suggest.  They are rapidly growing and spreading invasive trees that are beginning to dominate the landscape of the American southeast.


admire sycamores not only for their beauty, but also for their hardiness—now having to compete with these tough invasive trees and other invasive plants.

Sycamores are often one of the best climbing trees you can find—with lateral branches typically so neatly spaced that you can do a sort of stair-step climb winding around the main trunk and right up close to the top.  We had one in the yard of one of our homes that I couldn’t resist climbing—even in my fifties.

I plan to climb a tree every year until I’m physically unable to do so!  You know the old truism that “you can’t take the boy out of the man.”  I have to confess that with tree climbing that is indeed the case with me.

In fact, about a month ago we had a major wind storm here with gusts up to 60 mph, and I, having read how John Muir climbed a Douglas fir in a Sierra windstorm to learn how a tree “feels” in the wind, had to climb a red pine near our condo to get a small sense of what Muir experienced.  After fifteen or twenty minutes swaying about 30 feet up, I reluctantly came down because of the chill that came with the setting sun.  It took me a few seconds to get my “land legs” back. [See windblown video.]

The “climbability” of sycamores would lead one familiar with the life of Christ to recall Zaccheus who climbed a sycamore (to see Jesus)   Or did he?  Actually he climbed a sycomore-fig tree.  Sounds strange, doesn’t it.  The sycomore-fig (note the o after the c, not an a) is entirely different from what North Americans know as the sycamore.  It is indeed in the fig (ficus) family, and produces figs—on its trunk.  But the figs, to be edible, need to be “dressed” either by oiling or piercing to make them good to eat.  The ancient prophet Amos took care of sycamore figs (Amos 7:14).  [See Lytton Musselman’s Bible Plants site to learn more about it.]

To add further to the confusion, lands of the Bible actually do have sycamores like those North Americans are familiar with—only they’re not called sycamores, but plane trees!  Pictured is a natural collage of plane tree leaves: a photo I took in Jerusalem [Click on photo to see a larger one].

So the plain truth is that the plane tree in Israel is the tree related to the North American sycamore, but the tree that Zaccheus climbed was not a sycamore, but a fig tree, which is not native to North America.

But they are, nonetheless, also very climbable trees—as the old Sunday school song tells us.