Botany Blueprint: California Sycamore

Specimen #17: California Sycamore (Platanus racemosa)

The California Sycamore
e 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 comprised 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


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  1. I grew up in a neighborhood with sycamore-lined streets. The fruit were awful when shot out the back of a lawnmower into my shins. They made great throwing weapons, when battling the kids from the next block, especially when they were ready to burst into fluff, sticking to hair, skin, and clothes. Unfortunately, a tragic case of sycamore blight destroyed almost the entire neighborhood. I wonder what it’s like now, these many decades later. I once used the fluff as a three-dimensional beard on my Ulysses S. Grant report cover.