Sedona, Arizona
October 21, 2007

Secrets of the Sycamores


                                                                              Photo by Graham Spence


I never before knew the full value of trees. Under them I breakfast, dine, write, read and receive my company. - Thomas Jefferson


Forget about ADOT, charrettes, roads and roundabouts. Let’s focus on the trees themselves for a moment.

Why all the fuss? Why should we sweat it over a dozen or so stumps? Man needs paper, furniture, particle board – and roads, right? So what if we lose a few trunks in the process? After all, like Ronald Reagan once said, “A tree is just a tree. How many more do we need?”

These were some of the comments overheard around town as the tree debate escalated late this summer. So I decided to do some research on trees to see what I could find.

Nature’s nuclear power plants

Do trees have more to offer than lumber, firewood and fruit? What about food and shelter for birds and animals? How about simple shade and sheer beauty? Trees actually supply the planet with far more than most people realize.

One large tree can:

  • provide a day’s oxygen for four people
  • absorb noise
  • release up to 400 gallons of water into the atmosphere each day
  • filter dust and remove a wide range of toxic pollutants, such as ozone, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, airborne ammonia and sulphur dioxide, from the atmosphere
  • trap 75 percent of the carbon monoxide produced by the average car
  • filter 7,000 dust particles per liter of air
  • absorb 4,000 liters of water from the ground
  • regulate temperatures through the evaporation of water in its leaves
  • limit the severity of storms by filtering the fall of precipitation, holding some of it in and lessening its impact
  • intercept rainwater, aiding soil absorption for gradual release into streams, preventing flooding, filtering toxins and impurities and extending water availability into dry months when most needed
  • cleanse groundwater as it filters through the root systems
  • improve property values by 10 to 20 percent
  • help offset the "heat island" effect resulting from too much glass and concrete.
  • can cool urban neighborhoods up to 11 degrees cooler in summer heat than those without trees
  • slow down rainwater, helping runoff to soak into the soil at a slow and even rate, which takes the pressure off storm sewers and allows for the renewal of groundwater
  • reduce stress and crime
  • improve our aesthetic environment, providing a peaceful place to relax
  • provide a sense of "home" to a neighborhood
  • speed the healing process. According to the International Society of Arboriculture, hospital patients get well faster when their room has a tree view.  

In addition to all these incredible feats, one acre of trees produces enough oxygen for 18 people every day. It also absorbs enough carbon dioxide per year to match that emitted by driving a car 26,000 miles

Yet almost every city in the U.S. has recorded a drop in the number of trees along its streets due to development, pollution, disease and neglect.

Whispers of the sycamores

Likewise, what incredible secrets do the sycamores - Platanus occidentalis - hold? What would we lose by cutting just one tree down?

I knew the trees themselves would provide some answers. So I traveled up Oak Creek Canyon with my pen and notebook for experiential contact to a spot beside the creek where I could sit and write under a marvelous canopy of sycamores.

I sat at the foot a tall sycamore and looked upward at its expansive branches stretching out across the creek bank.

There is something magical about sitting under a great tree. Giant leaves tumbled to the ground, the largest of any tree in North America, along with bouncing acorns. Various animals scurried in and around it: ants, birds, lizards, insects, squirrels and even the Great Blue Heron.

We have nothing to fear and a great deal to learn from trees,
that vigorous and pacific tribe
which without stint produces strengthening essences for us,
soothing balms, and in whose gracious company
we spend so many cool, silent and intimate hours.


- Marcel Proust, Pleasure and Regrets

I closed my eyes and touched its towering trunk. It told a story about the passage of time.

This was a very old tree that had withstood all the storms, fires, winds and droughts of the canyon for more than a century. Yet it remained rooted firmly against change - gnarled and mighty. It had withstood so many challenges to its growth: weather, man, environment, cars, chemicals, bugs and other animals.

But it had survived all of the assault and continued to grow against all the odds, ready to embrace whatever changes and struggles it had to face. And it was determined to grow for another 100 years.

It served as a perfect living example of resilience, stamina and perseverance – the connection to the Earth and its creatures, the beauty of the struggle for growth and the acceptance of one’s surroundings. As such, each tree offers a treasure trove.

I asked how it felt about the potential loss of its cousins along Highway 179. It whispered a reply: It’s no different than slitting your grandmother’s throat.

Then I asked if their presence greatly impacted human health. The tree just smiled with a broad grin.

Sycamore stats

A follow-up search on the sycamores produced some pretty impressive data.

Just one sycamore alone processes the pollution of 26 cars speeding along Highway 179. A single, fully grown sycamore tree can transform 26 pounds of carbon dioxide into life-giving oxygen every year. Large sycamores remove 60 to 70 times more pollution than small trees.

Sycamores help to cool and freshen the air. Not only do they moderate the air temperature, but through photosynthesis, their leaves take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen for us to breathe.

They are happiest clinging to the banks of a stream, with their hollow logs providing homes to ducks, fish, raccoons, squirrels and many other species of animals as part of Oak Creek’s ribbon of life.

Their massive roots and towering white trunks also provide cleaner drinking water. During the autumn and winter months, their leaves become an important link in the stream food chain. More than 1,000 aquatic species (fish and insects) directly benefit from the way sycamores improve a stream's habitat and water quality.

During floods, their trunks create eddies, which provide important fish resting areas from strong currents. They increase the diversity of stream habitats by stabilizing islands and gravel bars and create deep pools and undercut banks, which are important habitats for fish during summer droughts.

A roost for many animals

When it comes to supporting a 2,000-pound bald eagle nest, sycamores provide one of the best. With the largest leaves of all American trees, sycamores produce seeds for the eagles as well as dozens of other birds.

Hollow cavities overhanging a stream create a safer landing for ducks as their young fall from the nest. Yellow-throated warblers, formerly known as the sycamore warbler, also favor riparian sycamores.

Sycamores provide preferred nesting sites, cool deep pools and stable stream channels for many species of animals. Their great height, open canopy, strong limbs and numerous cavities provide preferred nesting sites for yellow-crowned night-herons, ospreys, great-crested flycatchers and many woodpeckers.

Their cavities are also frequented as den sites by raccoons and other mammals.

Man’s best friend during floods

Creekside property owners should consider sycamores as one of their favorite trees. They are one of the few plant species that can hold a naturally meandering stream channel together during seasonal floods and frequent high flows.

Their massive roots and ability to grow next to a stream's low water level make sycamores one of the best natural plants to prevent stream bank erosion.

Riparian sycamores create a chain of benefits that affect the world around them, from natural stream channels to wildlife and humans.  Sedona needs to protect these mighty giants along rivers and creeks for benefit during floods.

An integral part of our past, present and future

What kind of society would trade the splendor of the sycamores and the life that inhabits them -- deer, eagles, blue heron and others -- for paper cups, two-by-fours and road development?

Frenetic societies such as ours in which we fail to pause and acknowledge the vast hidden ecosystems all around us.

To allow such a tradeoff is equivalent to destroying a great work of art that has taken centuries to create and that enhances the local experience for hikers, backpackers, bird-watchers and millions of others seeking Sedona’s natural world as an escape from crowded concrete cities.

Sycamores remain of immense environmental value, providing opportunities for inquiry and for increasing our understanding of this unique ecosystem and its role in our lives and in those of future generations. To allow their demise is to allow pollution and to cut off their unknown contributions to the community and the planet, essentially slamming the door on Sedona and its future.

Catherine J. Rourke

Managing Editor/Journalist








Preferred habitat: Stream banks, islands and floodplains.

Size: Grows to a larger diameter (greater than 10 feet) than any other hardwood in North America. Mature trees range from 80 to 140 feet tall.

Leaves: Grows the largest leaf of any tree in North America (greater than 10 inches wide).

Age: A resilient tree species, sycamores can live up to several hundred years. One living tree cut down in 1970 was 430 years old.

Seeds: Produces the most seeds between 50 and 200 years of age. A large "sycamore ball" has about 800 seeds that feed countless birds.

Home: Its hollows provide shelter for many species of birds, insects, lizards, frogs, eagles and even fish. Sycamores serve as the primary habitat for the great blue heron.

Benefits:  Their massive roots help provide stable stream banks and channels, consume large amounts of nutrients and water and filter out sediments and other surface pollutants. They enrich the soil with nutrients and ameliorate the greenhouse effect.