Buttonwood trees prefer deep, moist, rich soil in full sun

November 9, 2016

It never fails that when we are in a rush someone will “button hole” us and hold us while they talk as if they indeed are holding us by the button hole on our jackets. 

It can really push your buttons.

This time it was about the stock market which led me to drift back to lower Manhattan where the old defensive wall of the old Dutch settlement, where on May 17, 1792, a group of 24 stockbrokers formed the New York Stock Exchange under a buttonwood tree. This spreading native tree, nicknamed the buttonwood because its seed capsules are large, round buttons. 

Also known as American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) it is readily identified by its striking exfoliating bark. This mottled bark breaks off in big irregular masses, exposing beautiful shades of gray, brown, white and green. While all trees make room for their growing trunks by stretching and splitting their bark, the buttonwood tree does it in a most spectacular way. 

That’s because unlike many other trees, the buttonwood tree’s bark is rigid and doesn’t expand as easily as, say, the bark of a maple tree. Instead of expanding the buttonwood merely sheds its old bark. 

In addition to the ongoing display of new and mottled bark, the buttonwood blooms every May, with its telltale fruit forming later in the summer. These round brown fruits are about an inch in diameter, and will often hand onto the branches through the winter. 

Buttonwood trees can grow to massive size, towering up to 130 feet high, with some giants reaching over 160 feet, with trunks 13 feet in diameter. 

Besides sheltering stockbrokers, the buttonwood tree provides a light reddish-brown wood used where it’s beautiful color can be seen such as furniture and butcher’s blocks.

The buttonwood or sycamore seeds provide food for wildlife. The often hollow trunks are perfect nesting spots for many squirrels, wood ducks and other wildlife. 

The spiky seed balls are ideal for making simple bird feeders. Just roll the buttonwood seed ball in peanut butter then roll the peanut butter-coated seedball in sunflower seeds or bird seed. Hang these impromptu mini feeders and sit back for the wild bird show. 

Buttonwood trees prefer deep, moist, rich soil in full sun, but are quite adaptable to just about any soil, even dry compacted soils. These native trees are hardy in USDA zones 4-7. Water newly planted trees every day until they get established. You can feed them every spring with a slow release organic fertilizer. 

Because they stand up to the wind, buttonwood trees make a good addition to a windbreak or shelter belt. They are very resistant to air pollution and salty soil. 

While these huge often messy trees are probably too big for a small yard, they do great as wildlife trees and perhaps to shelter stockbrokers. 

And that old street where the famous buttonwood tree launched our financial center? The famous street is named not for the buttonwood but for its oldest feature, and today is called simply “Wall Street.”

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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