Specimen #17: California Sycamore (Platanus racemosa)

In defense of the maligned sycamore fruit

In California, we love the trees for their cooling shade. Their spiked pods take a little more warming up to

Anna Laurent
September 15, 2011 4:20AM (UTC)

We love the sycamore for its large leaves and cool canopy, and for a curious bark that peels to reveal a mottled pattern of greys and browns. However, we are not so sure about its fruits -- at least, that's what I heard from a fellow Angeleno, who happened to pass by as I was collecting California sycamore (Platanus racemosa) seed cases.

And I cannot blame him. At first glance, the spiked pods resemble a medieval battle flail, more or less, at least that's what he said, when explaining why he tended to kick them aside when walking with his dog and children. I agreed that they looked fearsome, and handed him a specimen and encouraged him to massage the ball. It dissolved into a hundred golden tufts of single seeded achenes. He smiled.


The California Sycamore

The transformation from foreboding globe to flight-ready winged seeds is truly incredible, and results in a cloud of Sycamore progeny that disperse by wind or water.

The California Sycamore

With no external protective covering, the California sycamore seeds together create the illusion of a spherical spiny shell. At first glance, the curious globe is hard, impenetrable, not to be trifled with. But please do -- when tussled, the fruit explodes with superlative softness. Each achene, or one-seeded fruit, is composed of a tuft of hairs at one end, and a seed at the other. They grow compressed around a central core. When mature, the achenes expand and burst forth from the amber sphere, revealing a smaller globe at the center -- a design specimen in itself.

Naked from its ascendent achenes, the oblong core is engraved with irregularly shaped scars. It is a moonscape terrain, and each mark is the footprint of a seed that has departed to inhabit a new riparian terrain.

The California Sycamore

Copyright F+W Media Inc. 2011.


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Anna Laurent

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