The Whites of Winter’s Eye
In the depth of winter . . .
and looking from the south bank of the James River just west of the Huguenot Bridge, I see Canada geese turning tail to sky as their heads submarine to the river bottom. Vacationing buffleheads on winter vacation from Canada twinkle like white stars on the surface as they take turns diving for their portion. From a distance the dense stand of trees on the northern bank form a tangled mass in varying shades of grey and brown. A dense, mostly homogenous throng of Virginia natives. But there is one species in the crowd that has waited for just this time of tree dormancy to distinguish itself. This sleeping beauty is the great, white monarch of the river’s edge – the sycamore tree.
The White Monarch of the Winter Forest
Richmond’s native trees typically capture our attention with their clothes on, adorned by flowers, fruits and foliage. But the sycamore is best appreciated when stripped down to a white skeleton. Fruit balls persist on the tree over winter before breaking up into downy fluff that carries the tiny fruitlets far and wide on wind and water.
Happiest on the Waterfront
The sycamore seems most happy on the borders of rivers and lakes. Anywhere you cross the James in Richmond you will see them gathered near the water. My favorite place to take notice is on the Willey Bridge. There my attention is sometimes dangerously divided between the thick stands of sycamore down below and the path of my truck above. Along with the black willow, the Sycamore has learned to live where many trees cannot, in areas where it will frequently find its lower trunk and roots submerged by a swollen surge of water. Along the James through Richmond, it is common to find either of these trees growing in the space between riverside boulders.
Pioneers properly associated the presence of sycamore with soil fertility, but found various uses for the wood. Though not a suitable wood for home building due to a limited resistance to decay, its wood is nonetheless hard and tough. It is said that the pioneers cut cross-sections of the trunks to make primitive solid wheels for ox carts. Other uses included hogsheads for grain, wooden washing machines and lard pails. Today, though sparingly used for crates and boxes, the most likely place you will find sycamore wood is at the butchers shop since it can be endlessly hacked without splitting.
But I don’t think this tree grows to be used. Along the river’s edge in Richmond, at least, this tree grows to be noticed. If your winter becomes too dull and grey, and you find your mood as monotonous as the natural palette surrounding you, amble down to the river’s edge and take notice of one of Richmond’s oldest natives. Look past the grey, the brown, and the dull of hibernating water and earth, and in the space separating the two you will find yourself looking directly into the whites of winter’s eye