Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Tuesday's Trees- Sycamore, Plantanus occidentalis

The Sycamore tree, Plantanus occidentalis goes by many names-- American Planetree, Buttonball Tree, Buttonwood Tree to name a few.  I prefer Lollipop Tree.  As a child I thought the seed pods looked like lollipops hanging from the tree. 

What it is not is London Plane Tree.  That is a hybrid cross of the Plantanus occicentalis and Plantanus orientalis-- Platanus x acerifolia.  There are a couple easy ways to tell one from the other.  One is that the Sycamore has single seed balls hanging from the stem.  The London Plane Tree has at least two if not three clustered seed pods/balls.   The other difference is the London Plane Tree's bark coloring has more yellow instead of white. 

And now, more about the Sycamore-- 
It is a native tree to the eastern part of the United States.  It is hardy to zone 4.  The tree is a long lived tree, some specimen living upwards of 250 years.   It reaches 60- 90 feet in height and can get very large in diameter.  Some of my references say the diameter can be 10 feet!  Case in point, this is a very mature Sycamore at the JMU Arboretum .  I took these pictures last spring.  I can't tell you how old this tree is--- however, it is obviously quite old.

 It goes up and up and up-------  way up towards the top of the tree you can see the exfoliating bark .   Scroll down to the next photo-- see the knob on the picture above?  Now find it on the photo below---yes, right at the top --  and my lovely assistant is dwarfed by this tree.  Magnificent. 

The bark, as mentioned above is a striking feature of this great tree.  On young trees the bark is mottled with exfoliating bark.  Some say the tree looks as if the trunk is whitewashed.   As the tree ages the bark becomes darker and ridged, though the upper reaches of the crown are still smooth and white and tan mottled in appearance. 

The crown of the tree can spread 60- 70 feet wide.  It is pyramid shaped as a young tree, round when mature. 

There are both male and female flowers on the same tree, making it monoecious.  The seed pods are soft fluffy balls, hanging from a stem. 

In the winter these seed pods stand out against the sky.  This is another tree that is one whose fruit stands out in the winter along with the Sweetgum.   The flowers bloom in March, though they are not ornamentally important. 

The leaves are shaped like maple leaves, except quite large.  They are simple, 3-5 lobed margins, some of my sources say the leaf is 6"- 10" across, while other sights claim it came be as large as 15" across.  The fall color is yellow to brown, not terribly exciting. 

This tree can be found in the bottom lands and quite often is a pioneer tree in an open field.  While it likes the moist soils of bottom lands, it cannot handle extended periods of immersion.

The Sycamore is a fast growing tree and its lumber, while used in furniture and interior trim work, the wood is hard and twisted grain.  
The birds and small animals of the woodlands eat the seeds, though it is not a major food source. 
References- UConn, North Carolina Wildlife Nature Center, Vanderbilt, VTech, Forestry Service, and Floridata. All are great sources of information, photos, and scientific data. 

Next week I will have many of the updated photos from trees previously written about.  Come and see some fall foliage or spring blooms or  new fruits. 
words and photos by Janet,The Queen of Seaford.


  1. Janet,

    One of my favorite trees. Always water nearby a sycamore. Once tried to split a sycamore log, had to burn the log to get my wedge back.

  2. I love these trees! None in my yard but where I walk on base there are tons of old old ones. Beech trees too. Between the two types of trees I'm always awed by their statue. I was noticing a sycamore growing practically in the water and wow on the root system. I was amazed it could even stand up! Now that I know they are bottomland trees that explains why I don't see so many street trees. I wondered why. Great job showcasing it! I love these posts!

  3. What a beautiful tree, I love the monster specimen that dwarfed your "beautiful assistant". I did a double take when I saw the seed pods though, being so familiar with "sycamores" having those little propeller seeds that I played with as a child. I hadn't realise that what I know as a Sycamore is actually an Acer, Acer pseudoplatanus, so thank you for making me look that up! Though I should have known from the leaves...

  4. When my father-in-law died, we went to his funeral and there was a Sweetgum tree near his grave. We took home some of those little round ball seed-heads and I still have them to remind us. I just didn't know what they were called til now. Thanks,Janet.
    I love the bark on the sycamore tree.

  5. Janet, This is my favorite tree and when folks ask why I always say, "Look at the bark!" gail

  6. I wasn't familiar with Sycamore trees at all so this was very enlightening. I love it and the round fuzzy seed pods. Do they drop and make a mess? The tree is beautiful as is the bark on it.

  7. Now this is one tree I can identify! Particularly in the fall, when I find their huge leaves on the ground at the park I take Sophie to occasionally. While we don't have any on our property, there must be one nearby, because I'll often find a few stray leaves that have blown into our yard.

    Thanks for posting the date for the Great American Bird Watch. I was just going to look it up; today I was excited to see that the woodpeckers have finally decided to visit us. I hope they'll stick around for the mid-February count.

  8. Love those trees. I miss having one in my yard. We did have them at the old place. Plus a couple trees from Tenn.

  9. Randy, amazing! Didn't realize it was quite so hard.

    Tina, I like these trees too, really cool bark.

    Janet, Glad you looked it up and glad you shared this! Large specimen trees are so cool to find.

    Rosey, Glad you now know what the seedpods from the Sweetgum are. The bark is cool on this one isn't it?

    Gail, I think each is my favorite, so hard to choose.

    Linda, Yes, they drop and make a mess. Apparently some folks are allergic to the fuzziness too.

    Rose, Happy I did one you know! Glad there is one nearby. Keep an eye out for the birds!

    Lola, I am glad to have shared this one that you like.

  10. Are the seed balls really soft and fuzzy? The sycamore seed balls my daughter collected are spiky with an incredibly hard exterior that cannot be crushed by hand. Once stomped, however, the individual seeds separate from their hard netting... am curious.

  11. Anonymous, your daughter is probably finding the seed pods from Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua. Those seed pods are hard and spiky. The Sycamore are soft and fuzzy.


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