Identify Common American Sycamore - The Major Sycamore Species

The American sycamore is a massive tree and can attain the largest trunk diameter of any of the Eastern U.S. hardwoods. The native sycamore has a grand branch display and its bark is unique among all trees - you can always identify a sycamore just by looking at the bark. The alternate maple-looking leaves are large and also unique to those familiar with sycamore.

Platanus occidentalis is readily identifiable with broad, maple-like leaves and a trunk and limb complexion of mixed green, tan and cream. Some suggest it looks like camouflage. It is a member of one of the planet's oldest clan of trees (Platanaceae) and paleobotanists have dated the family to be over 100 million years old. Living sycamore trees can reach ages of five hundred to six hundred years.

The American sycamore or western planetree is North America's largest native broadleaf tree and is often planted in yards and parks. It's hybridized cousin, the London planetree, adapts very well to urban living. The "improved" sycamore is New York City's tallest street tree and is the most common tree in Brooklyn, New York.

Description and Identification

Sycamore - Identification Plate
Sycamore - Identification Plate.

Common Names: American planetree, buttonwood, American sycamore, buttonball, and buttonball-tree.

Habitat: America's largest broadleaf tree. It is a fast-growing and long-lived tree of lowlands and old fields.

Description: Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is a common tree and one of the largest in the eastern deciduous forest.

Uses: Sycamore is valuable for timber and is also widely planted as a shade tree

The Natural Range of Sycamore

A map of distribution of sycamore tree in north america

Halava/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Sycamore grows in all States east of the Great Plains except Minnesota. Its native range extends from southwestern Maine west to New York, extreme southern Ontario, central Michigan, and southern Wisconsin; south in Iowa and eastern Nebraska to eastern Kansas, Oklahoma, and south-central Texas; east to northwestern Florida and southeastern Georgia. It is also found in the mountains of northeastern Mexico.

The Silviculture and Management of Sycamore

sycamore tree bark
Sycamore bark. (Meinrad Riedo/Getty Images)

Sycamore is best suited for soils which are moist and do not dry out. Dry soil can lead to short life for this wet-site-tolerant tree. Sycamore has been cursed by horticulturists and others because it is said to be messy, dropping leaves and small twigs throughout the year, particularly in dry weather. However, the tree grows in places which appear most unsuitable to plant growth, such as in small cut out planting pits in sidewalks and in other areas with low soil oxygen and high pH.

Unfortunately, aggressive roots often raise and destroy nearby sidewalks. The dense shade created by the tree’s canopy may interfere with the growth of lawn grasses beneath it. In addition, the leaves which fall to the ground in autumn reportedly release a substance which can kill newly planted grass. Best not planted in yards due to messy habit, it should be saved for the toughest sites and supplied with some irrigation in drought. Allow at least 12 feet (preferably more) of soil between the sidewalk and curb when planting as a street tree.

lesions on sycamore leaf
Sycamore Tar Spot (Rhytisma acerinum) lesions on Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) leaf. (Bob Gibbons/Getty Images)

Pests: Aphids will suck the sap from Sycamore. Heavy infestations deposit honeydew on lower leaves and objects beneath the tree, such as cars and sidewalks. These infestations usually do no real harm to the tree.

Sycamore lace bugs feed on the undersides of the leaves causing a stippled appearance. The insects leave black flecks on the lower leaf surface, and cause premature defoliation in late summer and early fall.

Diseases: Some fungi cause leaf spots but are usually not serious.
Anthracnose causes early symptoms on young leaves resembling frost injury. When the leaves are almost fully grown light brown areas appear along the veins. Later the infected leaves fall off and trees may be nearly completely defoliated. The disease can cause twig and branch cankers. The trees send out a second crop of leaves but repeated attacks can lower tree vigor. Use a properly labeled fungicide according to the latest recommendations.

Fertilization helps trees withstand repeated defoliation. Powdery mildew causes a white fuzz on the tops of leaves and distorts leaves. A bacterial leaf scorch can kill the tree in several growing seasons, and can cause significant tree losses. Leaves appear scorched, become crisp, and curl up as they turn a reddish-brown. Stress cankers form on limbs of trees stressed with drought.

Pest information courtesy of USFS Fact Sheets.