Sycamore trees have a long history in folklore dating back to Egyptian times where the Holy Sycamore is said to connect the worlds between the dead and the living. This great tree stands at the eastern gate of heaven which releases the sun to rise each morning.
Sycamores in general are known for their longevity. The North American sycamore is one of our largest hardwood trees and can grow to mammoth proportions. Perhaps it is their strangely colored trunks—which become mottled with stark patches of white, gray and greenish brown when the bark flakes off—that make them seem so mysterious. Their odd appearance earned them the name “Ghosts of the Forest” from Native Americans, with many tales spun around their magical, often sinister, nature.
According to one legend that originates with the Wyandotte tribe, the great chief who ruled over evil spirits grew angry at two of his followers. He cast them from his sight, and they fell to the Earth where they collided with two majestic sycamores that shaded the banks of a river. The wicked nature of the spirits seeped into the trees and immediately deformed them, turning their limbs into twisted, grotesque branches.
The Wyandotte in the area knew to avoid the trees when they followed the local trail to the river, but settlers who arrived later, scoffed at the native superstition. Some even threatened to cut them down and use the wood for kindling. Those who made such boasts usually met with inexplicable misfortune not long afterward. Rumors even spread of a settler who’d been “frightened to death,” his body found beneath the trees, his face twisted in a mask of terror as if he’d happened upon something unholy.
In 1840, one of the men decided to put an end to what he considered foolishness. He would rid the area of the cursed trees once and for all. Grabbing his axe, he hiked up the trail to where the sycamores stood, and swung the heavy instrument, aiming for the nearest of the two. Instead of sinking into the bark, the axe glanced off the trunk and sliced open his leg.The ax head severed his artery and he bled to death, gaping up at the misshapen, mocking branches of the trees.
But not all sycamores were malevolent. As large as they grew, with trunks often hollow, they could also provide shelter. Such was the case of John and Samuel Pringle, brothers who deserted from the army during the French and Indian War. For almost three years years they lived inside a sycamore tree in Upshur County, West Virginia. Eventually, running low on provisions, John risked a trip to South Branch along the Potomac and learned that the war had ended. He and his brother were no longer wanted as deserters and were able to move out of the eleven-foot trunk cavity that had made their home. Today, you can visit Pringle Tree Park where a third generation sycamore stands in the place of the original “Pringle Tree.”
Whether you view sycamores with respect and wariness as the Wyandotte warned early American settlers to do, or are more inclined to see their sheltering nature like John and Samuel Pringle, remember that these mysterious-looking trees have deep roots in folklore!