Editor’s Note: It was my great pleasure to be the Outdoors columnist for the Times-Dispatch for six years, from 2008-2013. I wrote two columns a week for most of that time, mostly sticking to Central Virginia, writing about the people and places that make the outdoor scene here special. I kept all my clippings from those years, and as I was going through them the other day, it occurred to me that, while some were event-based or otherwise time sensitive, many of them are still relevant today. The below is one of those, amended and updated (from Jan. 2013). Look for more in the future as part of an occasional series.
There’s a camellia bush in my yard, that lights up every winter with pink blooms. No matter what my wife and I plant in the garden all year long, nothing draws more comments from visitors than the camellia.
The ghostly sycamore stands out on a riverbank.
As I write this, it’s 24 degrees outside and snowing. But the camellia is a showoff. It’s covered in blossoms — dozens upon dozens. It would take hours to count them all.
I think it draws so many comments because of its sense of timing. What in the world is a bush doing blooming like that in the middle of winter, people wonder?
The camellia, however, is not alone in its wintertime display. There’s one other Richmond resident that does its best work this time of year. It doesn’t preen and strut like a camellia, but in many ways, the show it puts on is more impressive.
On the James River near my house there’s a place where I take my dogs to swim. It’s no secret, but it is tucked away. To get there, you have to walk across the roots of a tree. The roots are exposed and reach all the way down to where they anchor the giant tree in the river. But before they get there, they envelope a huge granite boulder, embracing it, almost devouring it.
The tree is an American sycamore, and it’s roots are just one of its distinctive features. In fact, there’s very little about the sycamore that isn’t distinctive. And right now is the best time of year to appreciate this unique individual.
The distinctive bark of the sycamore.
If you’re unfamiliar with the sycamore, go down to the nearest body of water and search the edges for a bone-white tree standing tall and branching grandly. That’s a sycamore, and where there’s one there are bound to be many more. Along the James in Richmond they line the banks, roots both in and out the water. When a morning fog hangs low, they appear ghostly — skeletal.
Good friend Scott Turner, an arborist and owner of TrueTimber Tree Service, is a fellow sycamore lover. In a blog post on his website he describes looking at a sycamore tree as looking into “the whites of winter’s eye.” It’s an apt description.
“There is one species in the crowd that seems to want to distinguish itself in the depths of winter even while all the others appear dull and tired,” Turner writes. “One cannot mistake the great, white monarch of the river’s edge – the glistening, white-skinned sycamore tree.”
He’s exactly right. Once you know what a sycamore leaf looks like, you won’t confuse it for another. Sycamore wood is hard but light, not at all dense. If, on a cold night, you’ve been sent to the woodpile to stoke the fire, you won’t mistake a sycamore log for oak or hickory. Old sycamores often have trunks that are mostly hollow at the base, perfect places for children to hide pennies and string and imagine worlds.
The bark, though, is where the American sycamore really sets itself apart. It’s as if the tree has scales, scales which lack the elasticity to grow with the tree and slough off. Underneath the brown and green bark, the sycamore is pale white. It’s like nothing else in Virginia’s forests.
Sycamores grow very large. In one of his journals, George Washington recorded a sycamore near the joining of the Kanawha and Ohio rivers measuring almost 45 feet in circumference. The tallest sycamore ever recorded topped out at 167 feet.
They can live hundreds of years, and, despite their affinity for water, are adaptable to many soil types, which is why you’ll see them all over the place. They’re a generous shade tree, branching high and wide, with large leaves that catch the sun long before it reaches the ground.
The sycamore is a standout in any season, but, like the camellia, it’s at its best when its neighbors put on their winter clothes.
“Last week when we had all that rain, when the weather was so dreary,” Turner told me, “it was like the sycamores along the river stood out even more.”
So, go down to the nearest creek or lake or river and search the banks for the “white monarch” of winter. Stand on its roots; look at the mottled, camouflage-like bark pattern at eye level; listen to the wind in the white bones above you and the water lapping at its base. An encounter with a sycamore is a sensory experience, one best appreciated when the days are short and spring is a distant wish.