Sycamores at the Edge

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As I drove along River Road in New Haven, I was scanning the roadside for sycamore trees.  I knew this area was the very northern edge of the sycamore’s North American range, and I wanted to see if I could close in on the most northerly tree in the New Haven River watershed.  I also knew that winter was the right time to look.  With the leaves off the trees, the distinctive white bark of the sycamore’s upper trunk was easier for the eye to catch.

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As the road neared the river to cross it, I saw the first sycamores of the day.  Not surprisingly, they were right along the river bank where they are happiest.  I turned into a pullout and got out to get a closer look.  Crunching through the snow along the road’s edge, it was hard to believe that these trees were just as much at home on a  Texas river as they were here.  As I got closer to the trees, I could see the distinctive mid-section bark:  large flakes of mottled gray, green, and brown plates with the white showing through underneath.  As I tipped my head back, I could see the many seed pods high on the branches.  I knew these were one of the keys to the story of the sycamore’s range, and they and the sound of the river water in my ear made me stop for a moment and reflect.

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Sycamores hold onto their seed pods all winter long.  In early spring, the trees drop them as the highest melt-waters are receding.  The river carries them downstream, and they come to rest on the sand and gravel banks where they like to sprout.  From what I could see, it was clear that the downstream reaches below these trees would have a good source of new recruits next spring, and place them just where they love to grow the most.  The vast watersheds between here and Texas were all repopulated this way.

But I was really focusing on what was happening upstream to the northeast, since I was in search of the most northerly sycamore in this watershed.  Any trees upstream would have been from seeds dispersed by the wind, not water.  This was the mechanism for the northerly reach of the tree’s range here.  I had to keep going to see what I could find.

The next stretch of the road followed the river more closely, and many sycamores stood out in the woods along the river.  As I neared Bristol, I knew Sycamore Park on the river shore was close by and full of my target trees.  But soon the road diverged from the river for a stretch, and I couldn’t see the river or sycamores anymore.  By the time the road rejoined the river on far side of the village, the sycamores were nowhere to be seen.  I needed to continue north toward home, and couldn’t double back to narrow the search.   I had to be content with knowing that somewhere between Sycamore Park and the far side of the village was the most northerly sycamore tree in the New Haven River watershed.  Maybe in the next installment of this search, I’ll have to continue it on foot.