The American Sycamore is generally regarded as the giant of the eastern hardwood forest. As these massive trees age, they may develop hollow trunks that provide shelter for ducks, owls, flycatchers, and chimney swifts. In Indiana, they are vital to the endangered Indiana bat, who uses them as nurseries. Some Sycamores have formed cavities large enough for black bears. And legend has it that a hollow Sycamore in Pennsylvania protected several of General Washington’s troops during the Battle of Brandywine in 1777. The Sycamore then became a symbol of hope and protection for America.
In 1963, the Massachusetts Legislature approved widening Memorial Drive in Cambridge to relieve rush-hour traffic, which meant felling 127 Sycamores along the north bank of the Charles. Residents protested and patrolled the trees for months so the District Commission wouldn’t surreptitiously take them down. Patrols were ready to blow a whistle beneath the window of a Harvard housemaster whose wife would summon supporters by phone to stand between trees and trucks. Their perseverance finally forced a repeal of the mandate, and the Sycamores still stand along the river.