Trees

Complete Guide to Sycamore Trees: How to Grow & Care For “Platanus occidentalis”

Read our complete guide to the Sycamore Trees for everything you will ever need to know! Tips for planting and caring for your the American Sycamore tree.
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Similar to oaks and maples, sycamores (Platanus occidentalis), are a common tree found throughout the eastern United States. The stately sycamore also goes by the monikers of the button-ball, button-wood, or the American plane tree.

It’s easy to spot a sycamore, as they have a distinctive maple-look to the large, light-green leaves. The edges have a ragged, serrated look, with a palmate and simple look. If you look at the underside of the leaves, you’ll notice small white hairs.

During the fall, the sycamore sheds its foliage, turning the light-green leaves into spectacular hues of yellow, gold, and red. The leaves litter the landscape with a color extravaganza that’s typical of a traditional winter setting in the eastern parts of the country.

The branches of the sycamore tree feature a light grey or white-colored bark that mottles as the tree ages. Older trees have a mature look, and the bark begins to turn reddish-brown over time. The tree also develops brown to tan seed pods in the fall that are up to an inch in diameter.

Branches of a mature Sycamore Tree
Branches of a mature Sycamore Tree

Sycamore trees can grow into giants if they have optimal growing conditions. The trees can reach heights of 100-feet, with trunk diameters are large as 7-feet. Large trees have a spreading and rounded form, and they’re common in woodlands, next to lakes, and on riverbeds, all over USDA Zones 4 and 9.

In this guide, we’ll give you everything you need to know about growing sycamore trees.

How Do I Grow Sycamore Trees?

The sycamore is a fast-growing tree that’s very tolerant of harsh environmental conditions. The trees develop robust root systems that anchor them to the ground, preventing them from toppling over in high winds.

Sycamore trees grow to lofty heights and last for decades. However, these trees are susceptible to disease, and without the right care and planting, it might not achieve its full potential.

Sycamores are easy trees to propagate from hardwood cuttings, and they’re easy to grow. If you have enough room for this tree in your yard, it can provide you with plenty of shade during the summer.

The sycamores size makes it the ideal tree for estates and homes with large yards. The tree also has aggressive roots, so avoid planting it next to patios, driveways or walls. The roots will eventually cause the ground the shift around the base of the tree, placing pressure on any surrounding structures.

A very mature Sycamore Tree
A very mature Sycamore Tree

Sycamores can also get messy in the wintertime. The tree’s leaves turn spectacular colors in the autumn season, but someone’s going to have to pick them up when they fall. The tree also likes to drop twigs throughout the year.

Therefore, you’re in for a decent amount of garden maintenance when the tree matures. We advise you to invest in a leaf blower of shredder for your yard to clean up the mess left by the tree.

You’ll find sycamores in forests and landscapes around the eastern United States. These trees do well in wide-open spaces, and they don’t like urban conditions or alkaline soil.

How Do I Plant Sycamore Trees?

The roots of the sycamore tree prefer to stay close to the surface to absorb rainfall and stabilize the tree as it grows. It’s common for the roots to break above the ground, and that why homeowners should never plant them next to driveways or walls.

The primary roots of the tree only reach down about 30-inches, and they prefer spreading laterally instead. Therefore, plant any other trees at least 12-feet away from your sycamore.

If you’re taking cuttings from an existing tree to plant in your yard, make sure you plant in rows that place the trees far apart. The roots will start to compete for water and other resources if they are too close to each other.

Seed pod hanging from a sycamore tree
Seed pod hanging from a sycamore tree

What are the Best Soil Conditions for Sycamore Trees?

As mentioned, sycamores don’t do well in urban environments. Most cities have alkaline soils and plenty of pollution, which stunts the growth of the tree and invites disease—sycamores like fertile soil with plenty of nutrients.

Ensure that the soil drains well, as waterlogging the roots results in the onset of root rot that kills the tree. Sycamores prefer acidic soils, but they are tolerant of a range of soil types, from clay to sand. We recommend you plant your tree directly into the soil in your yard.

After digging the hole for the root ball, line it with some compost to improve the nutrition to the roots as the tree establishes its root system.

Make sure you choose a planting site in your yard where the tree won’t overshadow any flowerbeds.

How Do I Water Sycamore Trees?

Sycamore trees prefer growing in fertile soil with excellent drainage. However, they also need a decent amount of water to survive. It’s for this reason that the tree is more common in the Eastern states, due to the higher rates of rainfall in this area.

  • Sycamore trees don’t like getting dry, and if you don’t water the tree enough, it stunts the growth.
  • Trees that don’t get enough water also become susceptible to pest infestations and diseases.
  • In the warmer parts of the year, you’ll need to water your sycamore at least twice a week.
  • As the plant grows, you’ll have to make sure you keep watering so it can develop a robust root system.
  • Never let the soil around the base of the tree dry out, as signs of disease and pests will start to show up shortly afterward.

How Do I Protect My Sycamore Tree from the Weather?

Old sycamore trees are resilient to the cold weather and snow. They can take anything mother nature throws at them, short of hurricane-speed winds. However, young sycamores take a few seasons to adjust to cold weather conditions, especially if you get them from a nursery.

  • When the weather starts to turn cold, spread a 2-inch layer of mulch around the base of the tree.
  • The mulch adds nutrients to the soil and retains moisture. The mulch also acts as a pest deterrent, keeping your sycamore safe from pests and diseases.
  • Spread the mulch out to the edge of the tree line and then wrap burlap around the tree when the snow starts to fall.

Young sycamore trees will perish if they experience temperatures lower than -34F. If you live in the far northern states, you’ll need to prepare young trees to make it through the wintertime.

Harsh winds may also dry out your sycamore. To provide it with cover, plant it around evergreen conifers for extra protection.

Sycamore growing in the park
Sycamore growing in the park

How Do I Prune Sycamore Trees?

Pruning the large leading branches of your sycamore helps you build a robust framework for the tree as it matures. The main leaders grow directly from the trunk, and pruning helps the tree grow up healthy.

  • Prune the leaders to a shape that has two of the main leaders. Trim back the other branches that start to grow in the next 2-years, removing any new leaders.
  • Thinning out the leaders helps to prevent the canopy of the tree from getting too dense.

Unpruned trees develop massive canopies that block out the sunlight at the base of the tree, making it challenging to grow grass or flowers. Having an unsightly bare patch in your lawn is not a look that most gardeners are going for this season.

After your sycamore reaches maturity, stop pruning. Remove only the dead branches and any diseased limbs from the tree.

What are the Pests and Diseases Affecting Sycamore Trees?

The most common disease threatening sycamores all over the east coast is Anthracnose. If the springtime brings plenty of rain and cold weather, then you’re sure to notice the start of Anthracnose growing on your trees.

The disease takes on the appearance of large cankers sunken into the bark of the tree. The cankers appear on the trunk and the branches. As the infection spreads, it starts to kill the buds, resulting in the development of a “witch’s broom” in the branches.

If the disease continues to spread throughout the tree unmanaged, the leaves start to mottle and turn brown. The tree sheds its foliage prematurely and may suffer from malnutrition that causes it to die.

To get rid of Anthracnose, collect all of the leaves that fall from the tree and destroy them, or send them to the eco-dump. Never use the leaves for compost, as the pathogen will overwinter in the organic matter.

Prune any cankered branches during the wintertime as the tree enters the dormancy period. Make sure that you clean the saw in bleach water between cuts to prevent the spread of the disease.

Other common pests and diseases affecting sycamore trees are the following.

  • Bacterial Leaf Scorch
  • Canker Stain
  • Aphids

Gardeners need to keep an eye on the sycamore throughout the growing season. If you have heavy rains, then check the tree for signs of mold and disease when the weather clears. Use an organic fungicide to stop outbreaks of disease.

Neem oil is also a fantastic natural pesticide that keeps the bugs away from your sycamore throughout the spring and summertime.

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Hollie Carter

Hollie is a life-long gardener, having started helping her Dad work on their yard when she was just 5. Since then she has gone on to develop a passion for growing vegetables & fruit in her garden. She has an affinity with nature and loves to share her knowledge gained over a lifetime with readers online. Hollie has written for a number of publications and is now the resident garden blogger here at GardenBeast. Contact her at hollie@gardenbeast.com or follow on twitter https://twitter.com/greenholliec

1 Comment

  1. Deborah LR Kornfeld Reply

    Is there a certain type of Sycamore tree that grows massive lower banches- I more than 2′ in diameter? Thank you

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