The “Syc” and Stinky Trees of East Falls, Philadelphia

Keep your eyes out for two noteworthy species this season… 

11-7 Fall Foliage left PhillyU

Some beautiful foliage still hanging on here in East Falls, but with so many leaves fallen already, other details of our trees become apparent. Like sycamore trunks, have you noticed them?

11-2 Sycamore bark closeup

The bark has a mottled appearance, much like military camouflage, that runs the entire length of the tree. The bark isn’t just discolored, but also peels away from the tree, like sloughing skin. Often, there’s a yellowish or olive tinge underneath, or in unusual cases salmon-pink in color, reminiscent of human flesh.

Gross! But, a handy way to identify them:  a sycamore’s tree trunk looks “sick.”  Otherwise, these are stately, beautiful trees.  A hybrid of the American Sycamore and an Asian species that would’ve been impossible without the intervention of European colonialism.

Neighborhood sycamore collage

A lot of East Falls streets are lined with them, including Queen, Stanton & Ainslie. They give great shade but grow kind of enormous for our narrow streets (trunks can get as wide as ten feet in circumference!). When you trip over jagged cracks in the sidewalk, chances are you can blame a sycamore.

Neighborhood sycamore trunk collage

Their gnarled trunks are particularly dramatic this time of year, against a harvest moon. There’s a giant old specimen in the graveyard at St. James the Less, perhaps some brave soul will take advantage of the photo op?

11-7 Ginko ravenhill 2 PM

Lastly, our area’s other easily-identifiable tree: Ginkgo biloba or the “Maidenhair Tree” which really should be called the “Dog Poop” tree because that’s what it smells like in the Fall when their berries drop. Which sounds like a euphemism but it’s not: the tree cross-pollinates in its leaf canopy (no, not another euphemism), then the ripe berries fall to the ground. And reek to high heaven.

Some compare the stench to rotting meat but as dog owners, we make another association, and find ourselves checking the bottom of our shoes often this time of year.  And we can blame John Bartram, or rather his buddy William Hamilton who “gifted” Bartram with a Ginkgo specimen in 1785. They planted up the hillsides of their adjoining properties along the Schuylkill, Bartram’s Gardens and Hamilton’s Woodlands estate.

Aside from the “P.U.” factor, Ginkgo biloba is an amazing tree, a living fossil! Considered the oldest tree species on the planet, the lone survivor of the primitive order “Ginkgoales” that covered the earth between 206 – 144 million years ago.  No examples were believed to exist until a German botanist discovered a species in Japan in 1691.

Today, stinky Ginkgo is the only tree on earth with no known living relatives.



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