Mythical Monday: Folklore of the Sycamore Tree by Mae Clair

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.

A close-up look at the trunk and bark of an American Sycamore tree. The result of shedding its bark for new growth is said to resemble camouflage.

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!

24 thoughts on “Mythical Monday: Folklore of the Sycamore Tree by Mae Clair

  1. Very interesting,Mae. We have Sycamore trees here, but I think they are the ones with berries that can make horses really sick. I wonder what living inside a tree would be like, eleven feet is a fair size. Thanks for another interesting monday post.

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    • I couldn’t imagine living inside a tree, Daisy, but then I remind
      myself it was the 1700s and desperate men can make do in desperate times. I imagine the brothers were happy for the shelter and never looked at sycamore trees the same again!

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  2. I was thinking the same as Daisy – 3 years in a tree! Those years would make for a good story, though. I’m not very good at identifying my trees, but the sycamore is one I always get because of the mottled bark. Great post, Mae!

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  3. I love trees and tree stories. Sycamores are among my favorites. Some people complain about their plethora of fallen leaves, but those are people who want nature to be all neat and constrained. When we lived in the forest we had a beautiful sycamore above our cookout area.

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  4. Hi Mae,

    Another interesting post. Who knew? We have a lot of sycamores here in Central California. I don’t know if they’re the same as the one the brother’s lived in, but they get pretty big in our parks and on the streets. I’ve always loved trees. I grow them from pods, acorns, whatever I can get my hands on.

    What about the birch trees, the white bark with dark scary faces on the trunks. My father always planted three. I wonder why. Maybe there’s a spooky legend there. Great post. I learn something every time. I’ll watch for the evil sycamores next time I run by the park.

    Mary E. Merrell

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    • Mary now you have me thinking about birch trees and those eerie faces on the trunks. How unusual that your father always planted three. I’m going to have to do some research on that and see if there are any weird tales attached. When it comes to green, growing things, I consider you the expert 🙂

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  5. You know, legends of spooky trees never seem to bother me in the daytime… But come the night, especially when the wind blows, they have a tendency to freak me out! So…thank you very much for feeding the frenzy 😉 Great post Mae!

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    • LOL! Trees at night splaying misshapen shadows on the walls and tapping skeletal branches against the window always freak me out too. Especially in autumn and winter for some reason. I think it must go back to spooky stories from childhood!

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    • And when you consider there were TWO people living inside that tree, it probably got about a bit crowded at times, LOL. I can’t imagine those living arrangements either, Heather! 🙂

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  6. I got chills reading “Ghosts of the Forest”.
    We have plenty of Sycamore trees around here, but I don’t think they’re as exotic or interesting as these ones.

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  7. thank you for creating a lovely link between sycamores and other worlds.. I was searching the net for any connection between sycamore keys and fairy doors, as I remember reading a story as a child in the 70’s where there was an incantation of ” sycamore, sycamore, let loose the door “… very haunting, does anyone know any more? Thanks again!

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    • Hello, and thank you for visiting my blog. I’m glad you enjoyed my post on Sycamores…I think they’re one of the most distinctive trees we have, with their odd, spectral look. I’m not familiar with the story you’re referring to but it sounds intriguing. I may have to do some research on that one myself. Here’s hoping you find your story! 🙂

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  8. Your post about the history of the Sycamore tree is wonderful. Full of history and folklore.
    I didn’t know they grew this big though. And could be so dangerous.
    We have Sycamore trees and I specifically love them for their beautifully coloured leaves.
    The name of the tree itself is beautiful and emotive.
    miriam

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    • Hi, thanks for visiting my blog and commenting on the post. I love folklore and find it amazing that it touches on so many elements, including aspects of nature like trees. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and took a moment to share your thoughts. Have an awesome day!

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