This grand sycamore has likely been here since the third day of Genesis. A few of the top branches got broken off when Noah’s Ark floated over. When I was a little kid, it was on the edge of a vacant field where road debris was dumped, and older kids rode their dirt bikes. Now it is on the western edge of the parking lot of Felton Covered Bridge Park. I write about it sometimes.
‘California Sycamore‘, ‘Hanging Gardens Of Babylon‘, ‘Nature Is Messy‘ and ‘Tufts‘ are some of the articles that feature this exquisite specimen. The last three of these examples describe some of the difficulties of old age for sycamores. Something that I may not have mentioned in these article though, is that such mature sycamores eventually develop root suckers.
I use the term ‘suckers’ loosely. For those of us who grow grafted trees, ‘suckers’ are stems that develop from below the graft unions of grafted trees, even if above the roots. They are from the understock below, so are genetically different from the scions above. Unusually vigorous stems above graft unions or on ungrafted trees, including the roots, are known as ‘watersprouts’.
For all other intents and purposes, ‘suckers’ really are just vigorous stems that emerge from roots, which is what we have here. Because no one was here to graft this grand sycamore on the third day of Genesis, these ‘suckers’ are genetically identical to the main tree. Unfortunately, their appearance indicates that the tree is finally acknowledging that it is slowly deteriorating.
Many trees do it, especially old riparian trees. When they know that they will not be around much longer, but still have some time to do so, they divert resources into their own replacement. Suckers are expected to mature into new trees after the original is gone. They recycle the mature original root system until they eventually replace it with younger and more vigorous roots.
Arborists may try to interfere with this process by removing suckers and watersprouts, and diverting resources back into older stems. This is actually helpful for trees that are distressed, but not yet decaying. For trees as mature as this sycamore, removal of vigorous suckers and watersprouts is mostly cosmetic, because thickets of such rampant growth becomes unsightly.
As violent as it sounds, it is best to abscise suckers like these when they first appear, and any that appear afterward. That involves literally tearing them from their roots to remove some of the callus growth from which they emerged. Cutting them at the ground not only leaves the callus growth to develop into distended burls, but also stimulates more vigorous sucker growth!
Now that these suckers have been cut down repeatedly over the past several years, simple abscision is no longer possible. Callus grown has expanded and fused into broad subterranean burl growth. Removal of such extensive burl would severely distress and possibly contribute to the destabilization of the already distressed tree. Suckers can now only be cut down to the ground.
Several years ago, when the first of the suckers started to appear, they were much easier to abscise. The process was delayed until winter dormancy. The small defoliated suckers were then abscised along with much of their associated callus. It did not accomplish much for the massive tree, and only delayed the inevitable for a few years, but generated an interesting byproduct.
The bare suckers with their bit of callus were ideal for growing into copies of the same tree. Most were plugged back into the riparian area nearby, but later killed by necessary vegetation management. A few others were canned (potted), and grew into small sycamore trees that were planted, with other sycamores, into broad medians and parkstrips in Mid City Los Angeles.
It is a long story about how those few trees ended up in Los Angeles, and were added to the fifty or so Birthday Trees that we plant annually on January 18. Sadly, their identities were lost in the process. If the other sycamores are genetically identical clones of each other, it may eventually be possible to distinguish genetic variations of those that were once root suckers here.