Best Native Shade Trees in Beaver County PA #1 – American Sycamore


Commonly Used Name:  American Sycamore Tree

Water Beech, Buttonwood, Western Plane, Sycamore

Scientific/Latin Name:
   Platanus occidentalis

Type:    Deciduous hardwood

Physical Description/Key characteristics:
   – Mature Tree Size:  Very large, maximum size dimensions:  Height  100 to 170 ft); Trunk Diameter 5 feet to 13 feet
   – Growth Rate:    Fast-growing, up to 6 feet each year
   – Leaves:    Large with spiked edges and with 3 or 5 lobes. Fade to unremarkable browns and yellow in the Fall.

Achene Fruit and Leaf of American Sycamore Tree
Mottled Bark of American Sycamore Tree

   – Bark:   Mottle-patterned bark which flakes off in large brittle pieces, leaving new trunk surfaces in a smooth camouflage-type patchwork of gray, brown and greenish-white patterns

   – Flowers, Fruit, Seeds or Cones:  Forms small, tight, round clumps of flowers and balls of seeds called Achenes. The seeds have a fluffy end which can be carried long distances in fall breezes or by streams and rivers alongside which they often grow.

Ideal/Preferred Habitat: Wetland and Floodplain areas (but extensive flooding for more than 14 consecutive days will drown the roots and kill the tree). Makes a good urban tree as the large leaves filter out pollution. But sycamores can be prone to mildew and athracnose.  

Uses and Importance: Superb, large shade tree with broad flat leaves. Being a native species, the sycamore supports hundreds of grubs, caterpillars, and critters which in turns feeds many small birds and mammals. Coarse grain of the sycamore can be difficult to work. Despite this, sycamore is often used in wood paneling, furniture, cabinets and butcher’s blocks.Interesting/ Fun Facts:  Due to the tendency for the heartwood to rot out, large sycamores often form hollow trunks. In fact, early Appalachian Settlers used to live in these hollowed our tree trunks. Native Indians also used the tree to make dug-out canoes.

Storm Resistance: Moderate to strong resistance, in our view. Like any tree it can suffer wind damage if weakened or in bad health. Old trees should be inspected at least every two years to ensure internal cavities have not grown to more than 30% of the trunk’s volume – the danger threshold prior to possible collapse.

Tree Pests/ Diseases:    Athracnose can partially defoliate the American Sycamore Tree if infected. Sycamores are native to North America so have developed resistance to local critters especially when healthy. However, if weakened by mechanical (abiotic) damage or disease (biotic), infestations by borers, Japanese beetles, spider mites and various caterpillars can flare up.   

Tree Care Tips for Homeowners: Plant where there is plenty of sun and space in your yard. The soil should be naturally moist. Remember these are large trees which thrive in fertile, well drained soils. Keep a watch for pests and mildew.

Attractive features: Statuesque, large, native tree which are easy to grow. Gives plenty of cool shade for your yard and home in summertime. Save on those cooling energy bills. Your sycamore rarely requires a tree pruning service unless it needs reshaping or crown restoration following an athracnose infection. In winter, the leaves drop warming your home. And the upper bark often turns white adding interest to your yard trees.

Less attractive features:  Large sycamores are prone to drop lots of small twigs year round and messy, small fruits in the fall. Athracnose infections will rarely kill this tree but will trigger an unsightly leaf drop along with more twigs.

Famous or Historic examples:  The articles of formation for the New York Stock Exchange are named the “Buttonwood Agreement”. They were formally signed under a Buttonwood tree (sycamore) at Wall Street, NYC in 1792.

Here’s a great video description of the American Sycamore Tree. Not one of our own videos but worth a look, nonetheless.

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