American sycamore

The American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)

This native American tree is one of the largest deciduous trees in the Eastern United States, growing 75 to 100 feet in height and developing a similar spread. The trunk can become 10 feet plus feet in diameter, though more usually in the five to seven foot range. Fast growing, often two feet a year, it also can have a very long life; some documented as over 250 years.  Most long-lived trees do not grow nearly so quickly. 

Its trunk is a fascinating green, brown and light grey with even a pinkish huge in some light. As it grows, the bark cracks, peels off revealing the colors. In the John Bartram Arboretum you can find a young ones donated as commemorative trees in the bed between Parking Lots 5 and 6 and in front of Cottage 102. Sycamores are found in wet locations such as along stream beds which it does help stabilize.

Sycamore flowers are monoecious with the male and female flowers appearing on the same tree.  The male and female fruit are dense 1" balls hanging on slender stems called button balls, though I as a child called them ping pong balls.

It has an aggressive root system which can be an advantage or a disadvantage.  Magnificent in a large yard or along a broad street, it is not good to plant it close to the foundation of a house or other structures or near water lines because it needs space and water. When we are planting, we should keep in mind the wisdom of Choosing the Right Tree for the Right Place.

This tree attracts birds, both seed and insect eaters, cavity nesters as well as small animals. Song birds like black capped chickadees and juncos eat the seeds; woodpeckers, red-tailed hawks, hummingbirds, barred owls and wood duck have been found nesting in its hollow branches.

                                                Anne Helm for the John Bartram Arboretum


The American Sycamore is also known by other names including the American planetree, the western plane, the occidental plane, the buttonwood, and the water beech. It is one of the parents of the hybrid London planetree (Platanus x acerifolia). The latter is smaller and less susceptible to plane anthracnose disease (Apiognomonia veneta) and has displaced the American Sycamore in many urban settings. Click on the American Sycamore link for more information and multiple images.

Plane trees in the arts: The well-known aria Ombra mai fu, from the 1738 opera Serse (Xerxes) by George Frideric Handel is thought to be an ode to the shade created by this tree. Choose among the following splendid examples: countertenor Philippe Jaroussky with a baroque orchestra, a vintage recording by Beniamino Gili with organ, and a very modern rendering by the American mezzo-soprano Jennifer Larmore. The sycamore was painted by Vincent Van Gogh.

Alan Lockwood for the John Bartram Arboretum