Few trees make a more lasting impression on someone than a sycamore. It has immense size, colorful bark, big leaves and recognizable fruit. The American sycamore grows in pure stands in the southern United States and by itself in much of the northern part of its distribution. It is an excellent landscaping species that can give you shade as well as be a visually appealing tree.
Sycamore trees have distinctly mottled bark on the lower parts of the tree with a combination of various colors giving the bark a dappled appearance. The leaves are large, with those of American sycamore as wide as 8 inches and the leaves of the California sycamore a little less than a foot in diameter. The tree has both male and female flowers, with the female flowers turning into round brown seed balls that hang from the branches of a sycamore until they fall apart and the winds disperse the seeds, which happens late in the winter. A sycamore may easily be 100 feet tall, with some even bigger. The species has the reputation for possessing gigantic trunks, with some over 10 feet in diameter.
The sycamore grows best in moist soils, as evidenced by the fact that it is a common tree along rivers and streams throughout its native range. The optimal growing conditions for a sycamore would be in loam or sandy loam, with an adequate ground water supply close by. It can grow in drier soils but will be significantly shorter in such a scenario. Sycamores, unlike the London Planetree, a close relative, do not do well in an environment where air pollution can affect it.
A sycamore can withstand extremes of heat and cold. It is a native tree in every single state from the Great Plains eastward with the exception of Minnesota, according to the National Forest Service. It occurs in southern sections of northern New England as far to the south as northwestern parts of Florida. The western border of its geographic range is in the eastern parts of states like Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma. Two other sycamores, the California sycamore and Arizona sycamore, are smaller and grow regionally in parts of the West.
Anthracnose is the main disease that afflicts a sycamore tree, killing leaves and sometimes the twigs they grow on. The older leaves can change to brown when this fungal ailment attacks a sycamore and the tree may lose its leaves. Sycamores that experience multiple bouts with anthracnose typically develop hollow trunks, which then makes it possible for heavy winds and storms to bring down large parts of the tree. You can spray fungicides on smaller trees to try to control this disease. Raking up any branches, leaves and other litter from a sycamore helps keep the fungi from returning, as they overwinter in them beneath the tree.
Two insect pests of the sycamore are the leopard moth and the leaf cutter bee. The latter does little damage to the overall health of a sycamore, snipping away small sections of the leaf as its name implies. They actually aid in the pollination of the sycamore’s flowers. The larvae of the leopard moth will burrow their way into the young shoots and branches of trees such as a sycamore, injuring the tree by destroying its insides. You can identify one by its yellow body covered with tiny black bumps and its all-black head.