The sycamore tree is native to most portions of the eastern United States, typically growing in moist areas alongside rivers and streams. However, it is able to grow in drier scenarios and makes an excellent ornamental tree, one that receives high marks for its shade and other interesting features. Several characteristics of the American sycamore can help you identify this tree, including its normally massive size.
The Virginia Department of Forestry website states that no other hardwood tree in America has a larger trunk diameter than the sycamore. The base of a sycamore averages between 2 and 4 feet wide, but there are specimens with trunks well over 10 feet across. The average sycamore will grow to be as tall as 80 feet, but there are examples of sycamores growing much higher, well in excess of 140 feet. The branches that grow close to the ground are often wider than most surrounding trees are. In addition, the leaves of a sycamore are anywhere from 4 to 8 inches in width, with some subspecies like the Arizona sycamore possessing leaves as wide as 10 inches.
You can identify a sycamore tree by its leaves, which have toothed edges and from three to five separate lobes on each individual leaf. The leaves have veins that radiate from one spot at the base of the leaf, branching out through the leaf and going right to the very edges of it. The color of the upper side of a sycamore leaf is a darker green than the lower side is and the leaves will go to a brownish hue come autumn, with some staying on the tree almost until winter begins, before falling off.
Although it helps to have the leaves on most types of trees when attempting to identify the species, this is far from the case with the sycamore. The fruit of the tree, which develops over the summer and into the fall, is a ball of seeds nicknamed a “buttonball.” They hang from the tree much as apples would, but these balls are just an inch across. Only one ball hangs from each stalk on an American sycamore, but on species like the California sycamore, there can be as many as seven on one stalk. In the dead of winter, these buttonballs are still on a sycamore, before finally disintegrating and scattering the seeds before spring arrives.
The sycamore seems to “shine” from a distance when it has no leaves, as the winter sun reflects off the whitish bark of the higher branches. The lower branches as well as the trunk have a dappled look to them, with an array of colors that almost appear as if a child randomly pasted them on the smooth surface. The shades range from gray and white to cream and tan, and piece together to form an easily identified camouflage pattern that gives the sycamore a distinctive look.
The combination of a sycamore’s bark, size, large leaves and buttonballs make it a fine landscaping tree for open areas. The tree though can come down with a fungal disease called anthracnose, which blights its leaves and eventually can lead to the trunk becoming hollow. This in turn can weaken the tree, allowing storms to rip huge limbs from it. For this reason, a sycamore is best suited for an open area of your property.