Lost Maples’ Sycamores

American Sycamore on the grounds of the Lost Maples Winery

In spring, people flocking to the Texas hill country in search of bluebonnets sometimes arrive too early or too late to see the bloom at its height. In certain years, the flowers are sparse at best, and the sense of human disappointment becomes palpable.

The same is true at Lost Maples State Natural Area, where the autumn color of Bigtooth maples draws visitors from across Texas. The New England-like foliage can be spectacular, but timing is everything. The need to reserve a date for a visit because of crowds — as many as 80,000 visitors in a six-week period — complicates things, since even the most glorious display of color can be swept away by overnight winds.

Still, if the maples have lost their color, other delights remain. During my recent visit, I especially enjoyed the American sycamore (Plantanus occidentalis). A tall tree, capable of attaining heights up to a hundred feet, the sycamore often is found along creek and river banks, as well as in floodplains. The most striking feature of the tree is its bark: white in younger trees, aging into a darker gray-brown, patchy, and peeling bark that resembles camouflage in the older.

Leaves of the sycamore and Bigtooth maple are similar in shape; size is often the quickest way to distinguish them. Here, a hollow log serves to display a collection of smaller maple leaves and an especially nice example from a sycamore.

Even the smallest sycamore sapling can produces glorious leaves, as this example from the Sabinal riverbank proves.

In Can Creek, dozens of sycamore leaves bobbed and floated; in the shallow waters, a few were caught and held by the creekbed’s pebbles and rocks, and glimmered in the late afternoon light.


Comments always are welcome.

57 thoughts on “Lost Maples’ Sycamores

    1. I wasn’t aware of a fire at Lost Maples, either wild or prescribed, so I called and asked a ranger. She said there hasn’t been any fire of any sort; I wonder if you’re thinking of the fire at Bastrop State Park — the one that burned the so-called ‘Lost Pines.’

      I nearly missed that log full of leaves, but the big sycamore leaf caught my eye. When I realized that there were maple leaves there, too, it made for a nice size comparison.

        1. Steve Schwartzman introduced me to the concept of a ‘think-o’ — like a typo, only mental. I’ve found it extremely useful, since I’m given to them on a regular basis. You just had a think-o!

  1. Sycamores are common where I grew up in Virginia, and I always enjoyed seeing the flash of their white bark. We had some on our property on the James River. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them here in New England as well, but most of northern New England is outside of their range.

    1. They certainly are a beautiful tree. Before this trip, I didn’t realize they have seed balls like sweet gum and cypress. When I found some with nary a leaf but plenty of seed balls hanging from them, it confused me. I couldn’t figure out what I was looking at. Now I know. We didn’t have these where I grew up in Iowa, and they’re relatively uncommon here on the coast and in the portions of east Texas where I hang out. I’m glad I got to see such fine specimens in the hill country.

    1. I’m anxious to go in the spring, Pit. While I was hiking, I came across stand after stand of mountain laurel: so much that I couldn’t believe it. I even plucked a leaf and took it into the visitor center, to ask a ranger if my ID was right. He confirmed it, and said that their wildflower season can be as good as the autumn color. As a side benefit, there are far fewer people in the spring.

  2. Once upon a time in early November on our anniversary trip to Fredericksburg we tried to stop in at Lost Maples… Tried was the operative word. There was a line out the gate and down the road just trying to get in. Since it was a spur of the moment thing we weren’t totally upset and just decided to do a winery run thru the area. This was back before Fredericksburg became the winery destination it is now, I managed to get some good images anyway out and about in the hill country.

    1. Some years ago, a friend and I ran into the same situation. I’d thought we’d be fine, since it wasn’t a weekend, but some school districts were on holiday. That was the end of that. I don’t know if they began doing reservations before the pandemic hit, but it certainly is convenient. I hope the online reservation system continues — it’s an unexpected benefit to what we’ve had to go through.

      If you haven’t stopped at the Lost Maples winery, it’s worthwhile. I had hoped to purchase a bottle of what I assumed was their Tempranillo, but got an education instead. The ‘Lost Maples’ Tempranillo being sold at HEB isn’t one of their wines. Apparently another vineyard lifted the name; it appears to be produced by Ste. Genevieve, and Ste. Genevieve is owned by Mesa Vineyards. It’s in far west Texas, and has nothing to do with the Lost Maples winery outside Vanderpool. Complications, complications.

    1. I was especially happy to find such colorful sycamore leaves. I’ve usually seen them only green or brown, like the big one inside the log. I thought the rusty red of some of them was beautiful — as pretty as any autumn leaf could be.

    1. That makes me happy! I think we all can use some spirit lifting at this point. I was so pleased to find this trio of leaves: all sycamore, and yet so different.

    1. I was lucky to have the most serene weather possible for photo-taking, GP: warm, sunny, windless. It was great fun to find and photograph these leaves; I’m glad they please you.

    1. It does, indeed. In fact, it won’t be long before our spring ephemerals are blooming. A few have put in an appearance already, and I haven’t shown all my fall treasures yet. I’d better get busy!

  3. The sycamore isn’t a native to Oregon but our yard certainly has its share of big leaf maples that are glorious in fall. And we have them all ourselves. There used to be a few along the American river in Sacramento, so I’ve seen the leaves in fall. Quite striking, as the ones you showed above. I used to tell people the reason that there weren’t more in the Parkway was that they got sycamore often. –Curt

    1. Oh…. groan! That’s a good one, Curt.

      The sycamores are a fine complement to rivers: like the cottonwoods in Kansas, or bald cypress here. Our hill country rivers lined with cypress have been favorites of mine for years, but the sycamores are becoming a close second.

      I never spent any time on the American river; during my time at Rio Vista, I never got east of Sacramento. I did take a look at some photos of Sacramento sycamores; it seems there are at least two other species there. I’ll say this — some of them are hunkier than anything I’ve seen here, with huge trunks and plenty of height. Impressive.

      1. Cottonwoods are the main river trees around here, Linda. As they were in Sacramento. I particularly remember the large Fremont cottonwoods along the Sacramento River. I also remember the cottonwood trees bursting with their ‘cotton’ in the fall along the American River. We get the same thing here! “Hunkier,” now there’s a description I haven’t heard in relation to trees before. –Curt

  4. American Sycamore is a wonderful tree. We are just about at its northern limit here, and there are not many, which makes it all the more special of course.

    1. I’ve been casually aware of sycamores, primarily because of those bright and shining trunks, but it was quite a treat to spend time looking at its details more closely — especially the leaves. Now, I need to spend some time learning about its seed balls, and photographing those. It’s interesting how different the sweet gum, sycamore, and cypress seed balls are from one another.

  5. What lovely colour on the leaves. The fallen log was a great way to photograph the fallen ones also.
    Sounds like you have plenty of opportunities to get out and about to see them at this time of year.

    Thanks for sharing, Linda.

    1. The log filled with leaves reminded me of a boat: a pirogue or canoe, filled with ‘passsenger’ leaves. I know there were some oak and maple mixed together, but the big sycamore leaf was the star of the show. Or, it might have been the captain.

      My little foray the first weekend of December was the last perfect weather we’ve had, and it was thoroughly enjoyable. We’ve been up and down since then, with plenty of cold, and cold rain. No matter: we can use the rain, and by mid-February, even if we get a cold spell, it won’t last. The traditional wisdom here is that Valentine’s Day is the time to begin pruning roses and such; we’re barely a month away from that.

    1. That upright posture is attractive. I saw a few slightly older trees, perhaps three or four feet tall, that still were holding their leaves that way. I was especially surprised by their color. I may have been there at just the right time to catch it, since so many of the oaks were only beginning to turn.

      I thought about you and Steve G. when I was searching for just the right perspective on that creek-leaf. I finally waded out to get more directly above it; it seemed the only way to get those almost jewel-like reflections.

  6. Again, these are photos I won’t be able to take here in Alberta. Nope, we don’t have Sycamores and not many red leaves in the fall either. So, glad to see your beautiful pics here.

    1. It’s true you don’t have sycamores, but when I think of your aspen, larch, and poplar? I think how lucky you are to have those beauties — especially the larch. Something for everyone; that seems to be nature’s motto.

      I was wondering about something else today; do you have robins? I grew up with them in Iowa, and love them, but rarely see them here. Every couple of years a few show up during migration, but that’s it. Until now. We’ve had robins galore the past couple of weeks, and now I have one that’s taken up residence at my place. He’s been here for three days, and I’m thrilled to death; I’m going to try and get some photos of him when he isn’t under the shrubs scratching for bugs.

  7. lovely photos as always. about 12 years ago I did a body of work about the gentrification of my neighborhood and the loss of so many of our mature trees and I needed a large sycamore leaf. alas it was late fall and the Sunday my elementary school grandson and I rode our bikes around the neighborhood looking for one there were none to be found, no big ones that is. The next day, he came home from school with a sycamore leaf that was 12″ across and perfect for what I wanted. he remembered what I was wanting and during recess scoured the school yard and found it.

    1. That’s a wonderful story. It must have made you as happy to know your grandson was thinking of you even the day after your trip to find a leaf. Kids like to help, and they especially like to help Big People. The fact that he found you a 12″ leaf was the proverbial icing on the cake. I just pulled out a tape measure to look at 12″. My heavens — that was a big one!

    1. We’ve had a long, lingering autumn, and I thought these were lovely tokens of it. I confess I was a little amused that my favorite leaf shots from Lost Maples were of sycamore leaves, but there we are. I’m glad you enjoyed these little surprises from nature, Becky.

  8. Excellent photos of the sycamore leaves. I really like the dark background which sets off the color. Texas seems to have lots of lost trees. Pines and maples come to mind and have yet to visit those areas of Texas. I love the sycamore tree because it is utilized by several birds. I have read that wood ducks and barred owls use it for nesting holes but that would have to be a really large tree that woodpeckers had drilled. The American and Lesser goldfinch and many other seed eating birds eat the seed in winter. I always wanted to plant a sycamore but never did because I could not find a spot with sufficient sun. Now that I am old there are areas where some of the old trees have died and suitable spots have become available.

    1. I can’t find it now, but somewhere I read that the sycamore is one that continues standing even after age and rot have hollowed it out. The hollow limbs and trunks provide nesting spots for various cavity nesters like wood ducks. I also read that in autumn sycamore leaves have a tendency to curl, like the ones in the third photo, making them great shelters for a variety of insects that need a cozy place to overwinter.

      I didn’t get any photos of the seed balls, but that’s on my list for the next time I find one of the trees. It would be fun to find some birds snacking on them, especially after all the leaves have fallen and the birds are easier to see.

  9. I think that last pix of the leaf in the water will make a good puzzle. My mom has a sycamore in her back yard. They’re beautiful trees, but very messy, what with the giant leaves and the balls.

    1. Sycamores are messy, but at least their seed balls aren’t as dangerous as those from the sweet gum. As for puzzles, I have one from the Sabinal river that might be even more challenging — there’s no leaf to work from. It’ll show up eventually.

    1. The ‘toothiness’ of the two species differs, too, but there’s no question that size is a good first key. Even on very young trees, the sycamore can produce noticeably large leaves.

    1. I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing them at sunrise or sunset. If I can find some a little closer to home, I’ll have to make a point of doing that. I can imagine how ‘golden hour’ light could transform them.

  10. The white bark is beautiful – reminiscent of silver birch. And that submerged leaf makes a superb photo – how lovely!

    1. The sycamore is akin to the birch, isn’t it? Especially when the bark begins to peel, it resembles what we called paper birch in Iowa. As for that leaf — there’s something about shallow streams, and the effects they can create, that’s so beautiful. They’re good reminders to look beneath the surface.

  11. Sycamores make a nice, tall landscape tree; however, those immense leaves are a pain to rake up, and the “trash” from the peeling bark and seed balls make it less than desirable for homeowners. I have neighbors who own one along a main street, and Dallas and I didn’t particularly enjoy walking beneath it (except for the fact that it has nice shade). You’ve got some nice photos here, Linda. I’m struck by how many shades of brown there are!

    1. I suppose there are pros and cons to everything in life. At least the sycamore balls aren’t as bad as those from the sweet gum tree! Those spiky little things are rumored to destroy lawn mowers, not to mention making walks really, really treacherous.

      It was the mix of colors that helped attract me to that leaf-filled log. There’s some red, green, and ivory mixed in, but there must be at least a half-dozen shades of brown. It’s proof that autumn doesn’t have to be all red,yellow, and orange to be pretty.

    1. Aren’t those log-leaves fun? I wonder how many little critters have buried into them for protection and warmth. If I were an insect, I’d certainly be tempted.

  12. A few miles from here, in Sunderland, is the Buttonball Tree, reputed to be the largest Sycamore east of the Mississippi with an age that is debated but well over several hundred years old. .A totally different species, the Sycamore Maple is found in our neighborhood. I especially like the hollow log shot.

    1. Your Buttonball tree’s remarkable in several ways: age and size being the most obvious. It’s age is intriguing. I’d read so much about cavity nesting birds utilizing their rotted out trunks that I assumed they weren’t particularly long-lived. That may be true for some, but clearly not all.

      I’m glad you like that leaf-filled log. I had a little post-processing fun with it, and was happy with the way it came out.

      1. Yup. Human exceptions too. We are told to watch what we eat, not smoke, and get exercise. All good advice. Yet every once in awhile some centenarian tells of a pint of scotch and a cigar daily as their means for a long life. :)

        Your fun yielded a nice image.

    1. It really is a fine spot. The camping facilities looked great, too. I’m heading back in spring because of the huge spreads of mountain laurel I saw. I’d love to see them all in bloom.

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