Identifying the Common American Sycamore

Hint: Look for jigsaw-puzzle-like bark.

American sycamore tree leaves

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The American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) is a massive tree that can attain the largest trunk diameter of any eastern United States hardwood. The native sycamore has a broad, outreaching canopy. Its bark is unique among trees—you can recognize a sycamore just by looking at the jigsaw shapes of its bark. Discover the other tree characteristics you can look for when identifying the American sycamore.

Description and Identification

Sycamore tree bark

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The American sycamore has several other common names: American planetree, buttonwood, buttonball, and buttonball-tree. This tree is fast-growing and thrives in the lowlands and old fields in the Eastern Deciduous Forest. It can grow to heights between 75 and 100 feet and is capable of reaching 175 feet under the proper growing conditions.

The complexion of its trunk and limbs is a unique jigsaw of shapes and camouflage colors: green, tan, and cream. American sycamore features broad, maple-like leaves, button-shaped seeds, and multicolored, patchy bark.

Flowers bloom in May and are not showy. The fruit remains on the tree throughout winter and falls off in the springtime.

Did You Know?

The American sycamore belongs to one of the planet's oldest families of trees (Platanaceae), dated by paleobotanists as over 100 million years old. Sycamore trees are among the longest-lived trees in the world, reaching ages of 500 to 600 years.

Natural Range

Sycamores grow in most of the American states that are east of the Great Plains. The native range extends as north as southwestern Main, southern Ontario, central Michigan, and southern Wisconsin. The American sycamore can be found as south as south-central Texas, northwestern Florida, and southeastern Georgia. Some stands are found in the mountains of northeastern Mexico.

Silviculture and Management

Sycamores are best suited for moist soils. Dry soils can shorten the life of this moisture-tolerant tree, causing it to drop leaves and twigs in especially dry weather. On the other hand, the American sycamore grows in places unsuitable for most plant growth, such as small cutout planting pits along urban sidewalks and other areas with low soil oxygen and high pH.

Unfortunately, aggressive roots often raise and destroy sidewalks. The dense shade created by the tree’s canopy might interfere with the growth of lawns. In addition, leaves that fall to the ground in autumn reportedly release a substance that can kill newly planted grass. Because of their messy habits, sycamores are best not planted in yards; save them for the toughest sites and supply irrigation during droughts.

When planting as a street tree, allow at least 12 feet (preferably more) of soil between the sidewalk and curb.

Common Pests and Diseases

Lesions on a sycamore leaf
Lesions on a sycamore leaf.

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Aphids will suck the sap from sycamores. Heavy aphid infestations can deposit honeydew on lower leaves and objects beneath trees, 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 stippling. The insects leave black flecks on the lower leaf surface and cause premature defoliation in late summer and early fall.

As for diseases, some fungi cause leaf spots. Anthracnose fungi, in particular, cause early symptoms on young leaves that resemble frost injury. When the leaves are almost fully grown, light brown areas appear along the veins. Later the infected leaves fall off, and trees might be nearly completely defoliated.

The disease can also cause twig and branch cankers. After the initial attack, the trees can send out a second crop of leaves, but repeated attacks can lower tree vigor. Use a properly labeled fungicide that has been recently recommended by tree authorities to combat anthracnose. Fertilization also helps trees withstand repeated defoliation.

Other issues include powdery mildew and bacterial leaf scorch, the latter of which can kill trees over several growing seasons. Leaves affected by the bacteria appear scorched, become crisp, and curl up as they turn reddish-brown. There are a few cost-effective remedies, and land management to support the trees' health is the recommended strategy.