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American Sycamore
A young American sycamore
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Plantae
Order: Proteales
Family: Platanaceae
Genus: Platanus
Species: P. occidentalis
Binomial name
Platanus occidentalis

The American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) — also called Sycamore, American plane, Occidental plane and Buttonwood — is a common and familiar species native to North America. Elsewhere in the world, Sycamore can refer to other, unrelated trees.



An American sycamore tree is easily recognized by its mottled exfoliating bark. The bark of all trees has to yield to a growing trunk; in the case of trees such as the Silver Maple and the Shagbark Hickory the process is not hidden, but the Sycamore shows the process of exfoliation more openly than any other tree. The bark of the trunk and larger limbs flakes off in great irregular masses, leaving the surface mottled, and greenish-white, gray and brown. Sometimes the smaller limbs look as if whitewashed. The explanation is found in the rigid texture of the bark tissue, which lacks the elasticity common to the bark of other trees, so it is incapable of stretching to accommodate the growth of the wood underneath and the tree sloughs it off.[1]

A sycamore can grow to massive proportions, typically reaching up to 30 to 40 metres (98 to 130 ft) high and 1.5 to 2 metres (4.9 to 6.6 ft) in diameter when grown in deep soils. The largest of the species have been measured to 51 metres (167 ft), and nearly 4 metres (13 ft) in diameter. Larger specimens were recorded in historical times. In 1770, near the junction of the Kanawha and Ohio Rivers, George Washington recorded in his journal a sycamore measuring nearly 45 feet (14 m) in circumference at 3 feet (91 cm) from the ground.[2]

The sycamore tree is often divided near the ground into several secondary trunks, very free from branches. Spreading limbs at the top make an irregular, open head. Roots are fibrous. The trunks of large trees are often hollow.

Another peculiarity is the way the leaves grow sticky, green buds. In early August, most trees in general will have--nestled in the axils of their leaves--the tiny forming bud which will produce the leaves of the coming year. The sycamore branch apparently has no such buds. Instead there is an enlargement of the petiole which encloses the bud in a tight-fitting case at the base of the petiole.[1]

Platanus occidentalis GS344.png
The Characteristic Bark of an American Sycamore
  • Bark: Dark reddish brown, broken into oblong plate-like scales; higher on the tree, it is smooth and light gray; separates freely into thin plates which peel off and leave the surface pale yellow, or white, or greenish. Branchlets at first pale green, coated with thick pale tomentum, later dark green and smooth, finally become light gray or light reddish brown.
  • Wood: Light brown, tinged with red; heavy, weak, difficult to split. Largely used for furniture and interior finish of houses, butcher's blocks. Sp. gr., 0.5678; weight of cu. ft., 35.39 lbs.
  • Winter buds: Large, stinky, sticky, green, and three-scaled, they form in summer within the petiole of the full grown leaf. The inner scales enlarge with the growing shake. There is no terminal bud.
  • Leaves: Alternate, palmately nerved, broadly-ovate or orbicular, four to nine inches long, truncate or cordate or wedge-shaped at base, decurrent on the petiole. Three to five-lobed by broad shallow sinuses rounded in the bottom; lobes acuminate, toothed, or entire, or undulate. They come out of the bud plicate, pale green coated with pale tomentum; when full grown are bright yellow green above, paler beneath. In autumn they turn brown and wither before falling. Petioles long, abruptly enlarged at base and inclosing the buds. Stipules with spreading, toothed borders, conspicuous on young shoots, caducous.
  • Flowers: May, with the leaves; monoecious, borne in dense heads. Staminate and pistillate heads on separate peduncles. Staminate heads dark red, on axillary peduncles; pistillate heads light green tinged with red, on longer terminal peduncles. Calyx of staminate flowers three to six tiny scale-like sepals, slightly united at the base, half as long as the pointed petals. Of pistillate flowers three to six, usually four, rounded sepals, much shorter than the acute petals. Corolla of three to six thin scale-like petals.
  • Stamens: In staminate flowers as many of the divisions of the calyx and opposite to them; filaments short; anthers elongated, two-celled; cells opening by lateral slits; connectives hairy.
  • Pistil: Ovary superior, one-celled, sessile, ovate-oblong, surrounded at base by long, jointed, pale hairs; styles long, incurved, red, stigmatic, ovules one or two.
  • Fruit: Brown heads, solitary or rarely clustered, an inch in diameter, hanging on slender stems three to six inches long; persistent through the winter. These heads are composed of akenes about two-thirds of an inch in length. October.[1]


In its native range, it is often found in riparian and wetland areas. The range extends from Iowa to Ontario and Maine in the north, Nebraska in the west, and south to Texas and Florida. Closely related species (see Platanus) occur in Mexico and the southwestern states of the U.S.A. It is sometimes grown for timber, and has become naturalised in some areas outside its native range. It has grown well in Bismarck, North Dakota[3], and is sold as far south as Okeechobee. The American Sycamore is also well adapted to life in Argentina and Australia and is quite widespread across the Australian continent especially in the cooler southern states such as Victoria and New South Wales.


A sycamore in winter.

The sycamore is able to endure a big city environment and has been extensively planted as a shade tree. It bears transplanting well and grows rapidly.[1] The second oldest tree in the city of Buffalo, New York is a Sycamore at 404 Franklin Street that has been dated to c. 1700.


Propagation and pests

The American sycamore is a favored food plant of the pest sycamore leaf beetle.


Old sycamores can have massive trunks

American sycamore is susceptible to Plane anthracnose disease (Apiognomonia veneta, syn. Gnomonia platani), an introduced fungus naturally found on the Oriental plane P. orientalis, which has evolved considerable resistance to the disease. Although rarely killed or even seriously harmed, American sycamore is commonly partially defoliated by the disease, rendering it unsightly as a specimen tree.

The disease makes its appearance soon after the leaves have expanded, appearing in the form of small black spots which lie close to the veins. As a result, the half grown leaves turn brown, shrivel, and fall. It is very common in early July to see these trees putting forth their second crop of leaves while the first hang brown, dead, and unsighly on the ends of the branches. This greatly shortens the effective growing season for the plant.[1]

As a result of the fungus' damage, American sycamore is not often planted; the more resistant London plane (P. x hispanica; hybrid P. occidentalis x P. orientalis) being preferred instead.


The terms under which the New York Stock Exchange was formed is called the Buttonwood Agreement, because it was signed under a Buttonwood tree.

Sycamore made up a large part of the forests of Greenland and Arctic America during the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods. It once grew abundantly in central Europe, from where it has now disappeared.[1] It was brought to Europe early in the 1600's.[4]

See also

External links


  1. ^ a b c d e f Keeler, Harriet L. (1900). Our Native Trees and How to Identify Them. New York: Charles Scriber's Sons. pp. 263–268. 
  2. ^ Dale Luthringer (2007-03-22). "historical sycamore dimensions". Native Tree Society Eastern Native Tree Society. (Web link). Retrieved on 2009-11-16.
  3. ^
  4. ^ Olmert, Michael (1996). Milton's Teeth and Ovid's Umbrella: Curiouser & Curiouser Adventures in History, p.217. Simon & Schuster, New York. ISBN 0684801647.


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