October arrives subtly in Santa Barbara with the soft golds of our native sycamores (Platanus racemosa). How to describe this tree that most often grows along streams? Eccentric, unsymmetrical, picturesque – all words apply, but we prefer to think of this tree as a species of uncommon beauty.
Right now, the Sycamores are continuing to prepare for winter – releasing palm-shaped leaves that drift downward making a wonderful crunch underfoot. As the foliage thins, the tree reveals itself. The highest, almost-white limbs reach toward the sun, as the thick, lower limbs, twist this way in defiance of gravity. The patchy bark resembles a pinto pony. One of the quiet pleasures of walking through a sycamore grove is to peeling off a patch of bark to reveal the unblemished cinnamon-colored trunk.
Though sycamores are prone to shed a branch that has become too ungainly, certain trees have achieved impressive size and longevity. One in near-by old town Goleta along Hollister Avenue, on San Jose Creek, has earned recognition as the largest sycamore tree in United States. It has been designated as a National Champion by the big trees program of the American Forests group. At 94’ tall, 52 feet around, with a canopy measuring in excess of 95 feet, the tree was a sapling at the time of the Revolutionary War and a strapping youth when the Santa Barbara Mission was under construction. Now surrounded by a cyclone fence, it will soon have it own park, instead of the used car lot that was once its neighbor.
Santa Barbara once had its own giant sycamore growing near the foot of Milpas Street. Referred to as the “Sailor’s Tree,” locals would hang a lantern in its highest branches before the construction of the lighthouse, where it served as a beacon for approaching sailing ships. In spite of heroic efforts, the ancient tree collapsed after an El Nino storm in 1986.
Now constantly there is a sound
quieter than rain
of leaves falling.
Under their loosening bright
Gold, the sycamore limbs
From Wendell Berry’s poem “October 10”
-Contributed by local naturalist Phila Rogers