The Sycamore tree is a favorite among many cultures. But did you know there are two major types of Sycamore?
There is the fig-producing variety (common in the Middle East) and the ornamental hardwood that towers over other trees in the forest and lives for hundreds of years.
This guide explores the types of sycamore trees available, plus how to identify its seeds, leaves, and other unique features.
- Family: plane-tree
- Genus: Platanus
- Leaf: Large, light-green leaves that resemble maple leaves
- Bark: Mottled, peeling bark that gives the tree a scabby look
- Seed: Spiked balls
- Blossoms: Yellow/green
- Fruit: Achenes, dry spheres that retain their seeds
- Native Habitat: Eastern and the central United States
- Height: 40 - 100 feet
- 200-400 years: 200 - 400 years
- Canopy: Dome-shaped and dense
- Type: Deciduous
- Other Names: American sycamore, American planetree, western plane, occidental plane, buttonwood, and water beech
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species Ranking
Plus, if you’re planning to transplant some sycamore trees into your garden, all the tree planting tips you need are right here.
Sycamore Tree Types
The sycamore tree (the ones that aren’t figs) are fairly unique. The following six types are the most common.
#1 American Sycamore Tree (Platanus occidentalis)
This tree grows as high as 131 feet and a native to the eastern part of the United States. While this tree’s main aim is to be as shade in the city, it is also known to have destructive roots damaging sidewalks and roads.
#2 Mexican Sycamore Tree (Platanus mexicana)
This sycamore tree usually has a stance of between 40 and 50 feet and is popularly grown in the western part of the United States. While Mexican sycamore is known to withstand drought, it is still commonly seen alongside the riverbanks.
#3 California Sycamore Tree
This is a big type of sycamore tree that grows up as high as 110 feet. This is commonly seen on the western coast of the United States. It is distinct on its pom pom-like seed balls at every end of the fall.
#4 Arizona Sycamore Tree (Platanus wrightii)
This tree grows up to between 70 and 80 feet and is native to New Mexico and Arizona. Aside from that, it is commonly seen in the desert parts of the western part of the United States.
While Arizona sycamore is a good source of shade, it is not recommended to be planted in backyards due to its expansive growth.
#5 Old World Sycamore Tree
This is another big sycamore tree that grows as high as 100 feet. This type of sycamore has its origins in the eastern part of Europe and in the Middle East.
While the Old World sycamore tree grows in damp habitats, once matures, it can withstand drought.
#6 English Sycamore Tree (Platanus acerifolia)
Another big sycamore tree that grows as much as 100 feet, is a native to Spain. It is a distinctively massive tree with a perfect leaf.
Native Region and Habitat Growing Needs for Sycamores
The American Sycamore is prevalent throughout the United States and is native in 32 states. The tree can grow in many kinds of soil but is best grown in rich, moist, and well-drained soil. They’re best planted in spring or fall. Sycamore tree maintenance is relatively easy.
Sycamore trees are highly susceptible to drought and are prone to insect and pest infestation when not watered regularly.
How To Identify a Sycamore Tree
Most sycamore trees are easy to identify, regardless of the season, if you know where to look.
Sycamore Tree Leaf Identification
Sycamore leaves are sometimes similar to those of some maple trees but have more shallow lobes and are arranged alternately. They’re sharply toothed and mostly kidney-shaped in outline.
They vary from 5 to 8 inches in size. They emerge from the bud plicate and are pale green.
When mature, they’re bright yellow-green above and paler on the bottom. Like other deciduous trees, come fall, they turn brown and wither before falling off the tree.
Sycamore Tree Bark
An American sycamore tree is easily identifiable by its mottled bark that flakes off in large portions and leaves the tree surface greenish-white and brown. The bark of all tree varieties gives way to the expanding trunk by splitting, but the sycamore exhibits the change more visually than most other trees.
The reason is because of the bark’s rigidness which isn’t as elastic as the bark of other tree varieties. It can’t stretch to accommodate the growth of the trunk it covers and thus peels off in uneven slabs.
Sycamore Tree Flowers
The sycamore tree flowers are small and exist in densely round clusters that grow from stalks that grow with the leaves in April and May. The flowers are monoecious (both male and female)and, because of their small size, can pollinate with the wind. The male flowers are red. They wither and fall off the tree after the pollen is dispersed.
The female flowers are yellow and morph into fuzzy fruits.
Sycamore Tree Fruit (Sycamore Tree Seeds/Sycamore Tree Balls)
The sycamore tree fruit matures in small, brown balls that dangle from the branch. The ball, which isn’t a single fruit, is instead a collection of many tiny seed-like fruits called achenes, which have dense hair-like structures attached. The balls are light as a feather and can float on water, which is useful in dispersal. Their lightness also lets them ride the wind.
Birds and mammals can sometimes also help in the scattering of seeds when they eat and transport the fruit.1
How to Grow Sycamore Tree: Care Tips
Western Sycamores are a resilient bunch and quite easy to grow, except they need tons of water. They should be planted by a stream or pond, for if not, they will need lots of supplementary water about once a week.
The roots will grow downwards in search of groundwater near patios or urban environments. They tolerate a wide variety of soils and grow best in full sun. They’ll quickly grow to 30 feet in five years provided they’re watered plenty.
Dig a hole twice the size of the root ball. Place the sapling in the middle of the hole. Make sure the top of the root ball is a bit higher than the soil line. Fill the hole with water before placing the soil around the root ball.
Related Reading: How to care for Magnolia Tree types
Allow the water to soak in, then add the soil and water extensively. Place three inches of mulch around the sapling. That will reduce the tree’s water needs. Ensure the soil is moist with regular watering for the first three months.
This will make sure the roots are solid and grow deeply.
The sycamore is very adaptable and grows best in full sun. Feed this tree with a slow-release fertilizer5 in early spring. If it needs pruning, do so when it’s dormant in winter or early spring. This hardy tree adapts to pollution, and drought, and is salt tolerant.
Sycamore Tree Pests And Diseases
Although the tree is very hardy, there are some pests and diseases to be aware of.
Sycamore Lace Bug
The sycamore lace bug is named for the pattern seen on the adult bug’s wings and head. The bug is only an eighth of an inch long and white with brown spots.
Adult bugs last through the winter beneath the peeling bark of the sycamore tree. They get busy in the spring when the leaves start to grow. The female lays her eggs on the leaf undersurface. The eggs attach to the leaves with brown sticky sap. The nymphs hatch a few days later.
They are wingless, darker than adult bugs, and covered with spines. Both adults and nymphs nourish on the leaves. Their piercing/sucking mouthparts are used to remove sap from the leaves.
The leaf turns yellow around the feeding areas. By late summer, the surface of the leaf is covered with dark spots of waste material and the shed skins of lace bugs. The trees aren’t seriously damaged but growth can be reduced under heavy infestations.
Plane Anthracnose Disease
The American sycamore is prone to plane anthracnose6 disease, a fungus found naturally on the Oriental plane,7 and which has developed resistance to the disease. Although rarely killed or seriously harmed, the sycamore is partially defoliated8 by the disease and dethroned of the natural good looks specimen it is.
At times confused with frost damage, the disease attacks in early spring. The new leaves wilt while the older ones turn brown at their base. Infected leaves shrivel and fall, and come summer, the tree regrows its foliage.
Cankers develop on the twigs and branches near the sick leaves and spread the disease by producing spores that weaken the tree. The cankers restrict the flow of nutrients causing the afflicted twigs and branches to expire.2
Folklore, Significance, And Medicinal Qualities of Sycamore Tree
Sycamore trees have an illustrious history in folklore that goes back to ancient Egyptian when the Holy Sycamore was said to be a conduit connecting and bridging the abyss that separates the dead and the living.
This massive tree looms over the eastern gate of heaven and from where the sun emerges to rise each new morning.
Perhaps it’s their bizarre-colored trunks that are mottled with stark patches of white and gray when the bark peels off that give them the mysterious allure.
Ancient Greeks and Persians considered the sycamores as the most handsome trees and planted them everywhere. In Sparta, the sycamore was attributed to the goddess Helen and was decorated with lotus flowers. It’s also dedicated to extra-handsome men like Apollo, Dionysus, and Hercules, who all sat beneath the canopy of the ancient sycamore while the Greek philosopher Socrates expounded philosophically with his disciples.
In the Seventeenth century, Georgian Tsar Irakli II, sat under the sycamore when he made the fateful decision to plead with the Russian Empire for protection and patronage.
One Bible prophet, Amos, was a farmer who cared for sycamore trees before delivering messages to the northern kingdom.3 In the Book of Luke, Jesus was recorded going to the home of Zacchaeus, a tax collector, who climbed into the sycamore fig tree so he could watch as Jesus passed by his house. When Jesus saw him, he called out and ended up eating with him under the sycamore tree.
Sycamore trees have long been used for homeopathic remedies, especially the inner bark, which acts as a disinfectant.
It has been used for everything from coughs to rashes and arthritis pain.4
History and Use of Sycamore Tree Wood
The wood from the Sycamore tree is good for many applications. Its many purposes include barber poles, wine barrels, butcher blocks, cabinets, shelves, cartwheels, flooring, a variety of furniture, interior paneling and trim, and violin backs.
Native Americans and French traders constructed canoes from sycamore lumber. Most dugouts were about 30 feet long but some were longer than 60 feet.
Because sycamore wood rots quickly when in contact with the ground, it wasn’t used for fence posts or railroad ties. The European settlers used hollowed trunks to shelter from rain or snow. Some early European settlers even acquired them as shelters until their log cabins were constructed.
They then converted the hollowed trunks into barns, silos, and stables. Smaller hollowed trunks were cut and used as troughs and tubs. Even the sycamore fruit had its use. After the ball harboring the fruit had split apart and the nutlets floated off, the core of the fruit ball, as well as the stalk and a twig, were constructed into buttons.
The button makers needed to make sure the tufted hairs of the nutlets had all dispersed because they would irritate the skin and respiratory tracts of potential clients.5
The sycamore is as sturdy and resilient as they come. It grows in cold climates, relishes the snow, loves the sun, and needs little to survive for centuries, making it excellent carbon offset trees when planted in it’s native habitat and protected by carbon offset companies working to eliminate carbon footprint from emissions. It flourishes in its native habitats and has served society in gracious and numerous ways.
So, the good news is that the Sycamore tree isn’t going anywhere in the foreseeable future and isn’t on any endangered lists.
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