Sycamore is a far more common tree than you may realize, but it's also one of the least "ordinary" of trees. Also known as Plane trees (genus Platanus), the Sycamores deserve a closer look.
Dave's Garden administrator Melody wrote about American Sycamore trees but I think the genus (Platanus) deserves a second look. Plane tree, or sycamore, is one of the most recognizable of all trees, for its smooth, uniquely pale and piebald trunk. Patches of bark flake off in random patterns, and expose tan inner bark on the tree's trunks or limbs. As the bark layers weather, a modernistic display of tan, grey and cream patches arises. With some trees, the entire trunk may bleach to an amazing smooth white. Worldwide, there are several Sycamore species. They all share that fascinating bark. Even exposed sycamore roots show the effects of the thin bark; see the photo below.
"the mottled bark adds to the attractiveness of this tree" (right) photo from PlantFiles used with permission - thank you melody
"VanDusen Botanical Gardens - Vancouver, B.C. Canada" (left) photo from PlantFiles used with permission , thank you growin
Sycamores leaves are equally impressive. Roughly the size and shape of your spread hand, they resemble familiar maple leaves. The leaves of the several Sycamore species differ in the depth, spacing, and number of the "fingers," or lobes and points on the leaf. Plane trees all bear their seeds in unusual hard seed balls. Those seed balls are about an inch across and hang singly or in multiples, again showing variation among the species. Because of the balls, Buttonwood is another name for Sycamores. The big picture of the Plane tree is as impressive as the details. Sycamore is one of the longest lived, and largest, broadleaf trees. Dozens of registered champion plane trees top out above 100 feet, and reach even wider with their massive branches. Of course it takes some time to develop this mass. Statuesque aged plane trees are estimated to be two, three, and even four centuries old. With that kind of lifespan, they have silently watched human history, as humans have humbly noted the trees' enduring beauty.
"American sycamore root system tracery along a creek bank, 11/06/06, Louisville KY" (right) photo from PlantFiles used with permission, thank you, ViburnumValley.
The American Planetree, Platanus occidentalis, is common across the eastern two-thirds of the North American continent. Sycamores of all sizes dot valleys and line riverbanks. They prefer a moist soil, but maybe they know too that their limbs and roots create striking reflections on the water. American sycamores dot American history as well. Visitors to Valley Forge National Historic Park meander under massive trees which likely sheltered soldiers during the Revolutionary times. A visit to Antietem National Battlefield Civil War site always includes the now serene sight of the Burnside stone bridge and its "Witness Tree," a sycamore.
"near Montezuma Well, Arizona - November 28, 2007" (left) photo from PlantFiles used with permission - thank you Kelli
In the Southwest United States, the sycamores are the California (P. racemosa) or Arizona (P. wrightii) Sycamore. These trees prefer the canyons and streamsides, but demonstrate Sycamore's adaptability to a wide range of situations. Both states have registered national champion sycamores; Arizona's Sycamore River and Valley sounds like a prime location in which to view these native trees. Five more species of plane tree inhabit Mexico and the Yucatan. The shade of a large tree along with the view of its cool white trunk must be welcome in those hot zones. How beautiful those light branches are against the blue desert sky!
If you've lived or traveled in southeastern Europe, or western Asia you may know the Oriental Planetree. This would be the tree that Aesop knew thousands of years ago in Greece. Sycamore was so widely recognized that Aesop featured the trees in some of his enduring Fables. Hippocrates is said to have taught under a plane tree, and aged sycamores are still found in many Greek villages. A historic sycamore in Kashmir is dated to over 600 years old. Plane trees, called chinar in that region, are now protected by law. Oriental plane tree's leaf looks strikingly like a silver maple; see it in the photo near the top of the article.
"My wife and I walked through Hyde Park on a cool September day and admired the great beauty of the bark and massive trunks [of the London plane trees.](Michael A. Dirr, Manual of Woody Landscape Plants)
In cities, public gardens, and other planned settings, you've likely seen London Planetree, Platanus x acerifolia. This hybrid's hardy nature made it resistant to the horrible air pollution of coal heated London in the 1800s. London planetree is widely used in urban landscapes of Europe. Esteemed horticulturist and sycamore admirer Michael Dirr lists a number of noteworthy London plantree plantings in his Manual of Woody Landscape Plants. Look for "spectacular" plane trees in Hyde Park, London; Jardin des Plantes, Paris; Berne, Switzerland, and the American cities of Cambridge, MA, and Washington, DC, among many other locations.
Two cultivars of London Planetree, photos used with permission of Viburnum Valley, thank you VV
"'Suttneri plane tree in a public garden landscape, 25 Oct 2010, Louisville KY"
"'Yarwood' plane tree another specimen thriving in a park landscape, 26 Mar 2007, Louisville KY"
As much as we love Sycamore, this tree might be best left to the professionals. All are generally prone to anthracnose, which will cause curled leaves, leaf drop in spring, and witch's brooms on the branches. Those brooms lead to frequent littering with small branches, while the larger limbs seem brittle too. The huge sycamore leaves make for hearty raking. The seed balls stay on the tree until dry but then fall, break, and create a fuzzy, gutter and curb clogging mass. Still, despite these flaws, Plane tree can be one of the most handsome, largest, and longest living trees one can plant. Most Sycamores for sale are a generic London Plane Tree or the American species. The better choice would be one of the cultivars of London Planetree. Pictures are 'Suttneri' (top at right) and 'Yarwood' (bottom at right.) Both of these specimens were planted under direction of a dedicated land manager with a vision to allowing our appreciation of a tree for decades to come.
~~ Resources ~~
Dirr, M.A. 1998. Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (fifth ed.) Stipes Publishing Co., Champaign, IL. .
I grew up playing in the Maryland woods, and would still do it often if life allowed! Graduate of University of Maryland, my degree is in Agriculture. Gardens and natural areas give me endless opportunity for learning and wonder. Naturally (pun intended) my garden style leans towards the casual, and my cultural methods towards organic. I like to try new plants, and have "some of everything" in my indoor and outdoor gardens. Thanks go to my parents for passing along their love of gardening and nature, and my husband and kids for being patient when I get lost in the garden.