American Sycamore

Basic Information
Tree ID: 
Genus and species: 
Towering outside of Osborn Memorial Lab, this tree is very hard to miss. Aside from being nearly 100 feet tall, this tree's most distinctive features are the different colors and textures of the bark: dark and tough at the bottom, light and smooth at the top.
Thomas Aviles
Collected Data
Tree shape: 
Round, spreading; irregular
Date of tree entry: 
28.18 m
Diameter at breast height: 
1.16 m

The bark at the base is tough, thick, and scaly, while farther up the trunk it is much paler (nearly white) and smoother. This is due to the inflexibility of the bark as the tree grows -- the bark flakes off in irregular patches as the the tree grows, exposing the light and smooth layer below.
Twigs & branches
The twigs emerge sometime at the beginning of April (they did so here even after the especially long and cold winter of 2014). The buds are alternating.
As you can see from the close-up, the leaves are alternate, simple, and have palmate venation and toothed margins. As is typical of deciduous trees, the leaves turn brown, wither, and fall from the tree during autumn. Leaves typically emerge around late April or early May. The large size of the leaves (anywhere from 4-12 inches wide) makes these trees great shade trees.
Reproductive Structures
Flowers are quite small and appear in dense, round clusters emerging from stalks that grow with the leaves in April and May. The flowers are monoecious (unisexual flowers appearing on the same tree) and wind pollinated; the male flowers are red and whither and drop off the tree after pollen dispersal; the female flowers are yellow and mature into fuzzy fruits.
The fruits mature in a small, brown, burr-like ball that hangs from the branch. The ball is not a single fruit itself but instead an agregate of many small seed-like fruits called achenes with fuzzy hair-like structures attached. The balls are very light, and can float on water, which is useful in the dispersal. Their lightness also enables them to be carried by wind. Mammals and birds sometimes also function in the dispersal of seeds by eating and transporting the fruit. The American Sycamore can be easily confused with its hybrid cousin, the London planetree but if you look closely, the London planetree has pairs of seedballs while the American Sycamore has only a single ball.
  • Spring
  • Summer
  • Summer
  • Early Fall
  • Winter
Natural range of distribution: 
The native habitat of the American sycamore is the wetland and riparian zone, or the interface between land and a stream or river. As you can see from the map, it inhabits a vast range, extending across the eastern U.S. and stretching south into northern Mexico and north into Canada. It requires moist soil and uses a lot of water -- this is why it lives primarily along rivers. Sycamores are adapted to tollerate waterlogged and anaerobic conditions which makes them ideal for cities where much of the soil highly compacted and poorly drained. Other varieties of sycamore also grow in the western U.S.
Origin, history, and uses: 

The American sycamore has had a variety of uses and still does today. Its size and ability to withstand city environments has led to its rather extensive use as a shade tree. This practice has faded to some degree, as it has been noticed that the effects of anthracnose (canker) are stronger in sycamore than in other similar species – although the tree is usually not severely harmed by the disease, it often doesn’t look very pretty as a result of the damage. Sycamore wood is used commonly for industrial purposes – butcher’s blocks, crates, boxes, etc. – but less so for furniture and the like, primarily because the wood is very coarse and tough to work. It does still get used some in furniture, though, as well as in some siding and even some musical instruments.

The sycamore once populated the forests of the Arctic region during the Cretaceous period. The tree was brought to Europe sometime during the 17th century, and has established itself in Argentina as well as in Australia and New Zealand. The largest tree in Connecticut is supposedly an American sycamore (the Pinchot Sycamore in Simsbury, CT). There is also an even larger specimen in Sunderland, MA (the Buttonball Tree), rumored to be the largest sycamore on the East Coast.

A bit of sycamore trivia: the agreement on which the New York Stock Exchange was founded in 1793 is called the Buttonwood Agreement because it was signed under a sycamore tree located on Wall Street.

Buds typically start to show in early spring, with leaves and flowers coming in April heading into May in some cases (especially after a long, cold winter in the North). Leafing will continue and stems will grow late into the summer, before going dormant around the end of August. The seeds are dispersed by wind from January into March, and good seed years typically occur every 2 or 3 years beginning around age 50 (trees begin producing viable seeds after about 25 years).

Distribution map: “Platanus occidentalis.” Wikipedia, 2014. Accessed February 27, 2014.

Reichhardt, Karen. “Cooperative National Park Resources Studies Unit:Technical Report 33.” . N.p., 1 Jan. 1990. Web. 23 Apr. 2014. <>.

Gilman, Edward. “Platanus occidentalis.” . N.p., 1 Oct. 1994. Web. 23 Apr. 2014. <>.

“Platanus occidentalis.” Platanus occidentalis. Vanderbilt University, n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2014. <>.

Still, Douglas, and Fiona Watt. “WHY THE SYCAMORE SHEDS ITS BARK.” The Daily Plant : NYC Parks. N.p., 14 Oct. 2004. Web. 23 Apr. 2014. <>.

Wells, O.O.. “Platanus occidentalis.” . N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Apr. 2014. <….

Other images taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Media and Arts
Just having a little fun jamming and being silly, American Sycamore style.

To a Sycamore

You are tall, proud,  and majestic.

You have a soft heart that emerges, with time,

From beneath your gruff exterior.

When hard times come, you remain stable,

Quiet, unassuming, and you wait patiently

For them to pass.

When good times come, you flourish     ,

Blossoming up and out and full of life.

For all our human wonders, we have never attained

Your steadiness, your inner peace.

Teach us how to be like you.

–Thomas Aviles