early winter sycamores

I first photographed these two trees over a decade ago, when I was working on a little photo project on local sycamores. I liked the way the two branches seemed to form a continuous arc when viewed from the right angle. Today, one of the trees is ailing and has lost some branches. Still, this little branch detail remains. The vegetation around the trees has changed over the years, as you might expect, and now you’ll have to stand in the middle of a big coyote bush brush to view the effect. At least it wasn’t a cactus.

When I started my photo series a lot of things attracted me to the Western sycamore, Platanus racemosa: their interesting branch structure, their over-scaled and dramatic leaves, their amazing exfoliating bark. And of the handful of native tree species within a few miles of my house, the sycamore may be the most spectacular this time of year. On my last trip to to San Diego’s Mission Trails Regional Park, I paid closest attention to what these trees were doing at the beginning of winter.

These are deciduous trees, along with the cottonwoods and willows, and they’ll attempt autumn or early winter color. Often the leaves are as much brown as they are yellow.

With a backdrop of gray sagebrush and black sage you’d never mistake this for a New England autumn postcard.

Things were nearing the end of leaf-fall. Most of the leaves lay underfoot.

Some of the leaves that weren’t underfoot were underwater.

With most of the leaves now off the trees, the light-colored bark stands out. Here a tree shows off its silhouette against a dark green evergreen live oak.

Looking closely at the bare trees lets you concentrate on their peeling bark. Who needs inkblots when you can do your own Rorschach test on patterns of sycamore bark? It’s great now, but will get more interesting as the year progresses.

Yellow, brown, gray and green are the main colors this time of year in the canyon bottoms where sycamores concentrate. Here’s a final shot of the last yellow-brown sycamore leaves of the season.

Nearby, cottonwoods contribute to the color scheme…

…as do the arroyo willows.

It won’t be long before the raucously colored flowers start up. But it’s a quietly beautiful time of year before they do.

10 thoughts on “early winter sycamores”

  1. I enjoyed this photoessay on our native sycamore and its surroundings. Subtle beauty is powerful, too. The photo of the sycamore against the live oak reminded me how beautiful the sycamore form is, especially when people don’t do awful things like poll them.

  2. I see a man with glasses in the tree bark. He looks like a teacher who is leaning over to scold a student. What does that say about me? PS: Great photos!

  3. Pomona, I see these trees going in in places where the owners have no idea how large they can get–quickly. Even if they must be pruned, there are more graceful, natural ways to cut them than to turn them into lollipops.

    Susie, I’m sorry to hear you might lose your sycamore! I’d be devastated. I knew there were various beetles out there eating trees, but I hadn’t heard of a bark beetle on sycamores.

    Stevie, you’re revealing all sorts of things about yourself…makes me wonder whether you’re dreaming you’re the student or–hopefully not–the teacher…

    Noelle, of all their features, it’s the bark that really gets me. I could stare at it for hours.

  4. James, the Sycamores back East are simply breathtaking. I also love the bark, as mottled and spotty as it is and standing out so clearly. They have become one of my favorite local items in Louisville. In many ways, they remind me of the Eucalyptus in California with all that varied color.

    1. Steve, I haven’t done a scientific survey, but the sycamores seem to be better than eucalyptus at holding on to their big branches, though they will shed quite a few twigs. Give the choice–and an unlimited water budget–I’d definitely go for the sycamore.

  5. Raucously colored – I like it. I adore the sycamores that grow along side the creek that runs beside the one-track road winding up a narrow valley to our home. Especially beautiful in fall when the leaves light up pale golden – I took some pictures and then never posted them on the blog. The bark reminds me of London, whose plane trees are a kind of sycamore I guess. Beautiful photos – I enjoyed them a lot. I think I’ll go enjoy them some more.

  6. CM, the Getty Museum has a large planting of London plane trees which looked so much like sycamores that I had to go looking them up. Different species, but same genus. I think that qualifies as a “sycamore.” It’s odd that they used that species and not the native sycamore that grows a half mile away. But European plants at a museum that features European art somehow seems par for the course. At least the firm that handles other landscaping details planted Western sycamores all around the musuem–There’s even one right at the main entrance.

  7. Well, that’s interesting but I guess not so unexpected. Could be just lack of knowledge on the designer/architect’s part, or maybe the plane tree is more predictable in its size and shape, a known quantity, or preferable as to exact color or some aesthetic characteristic. . .

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