The American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) towers over landscape and is most notable for its light-colored, exfoliating bark. Native of eastern North America, it grows in U.S. Department of Agriculture hardiness zones 4 through 9. Although the sycamore's bark is appealing, its large, toothy leaves pose problems for gardeners who would like to have this massive tree on their property.
Sycamore leaves are medium to large in size, ranging from 4 to 10 inches in width, and they are often wider than they are long. The leaves have three to five lobes with coarse teeth along the margins of the leaf. In general, sycamore leaves somewhat resemble maple leaves, and in fact the sycamore's common name may have been derived from that of the sycamore maple (Acer pseudoplatanus), a European native, because European settlers saw a resemblance between the maple and this North American tree.
The visual appeal of the sycamore in the autumn and winter has more to do with the absence of its leaves than with their fall color. Sycamore leaves turn an unexceptional brown or yellow-brown in the fall, and they can't compete with most maples in terms of autumnal attractiveness. Once the leaves fall, however, the tree's appealing mottled bark is exposed, making the tree stand out in the late-fall forest.
Sycamores are particularly susceptible to anthracnose, a fungal infection that causes leaf blight and may result in the complete loss of the tree's leaves. After the leaves drop initially, usually in the spring, they typically grow back, but the fungus often retreats into twigs and reinfects leaves later in the season. Repeated infections over a period of years can cause distorted growth patterns and may make the tree susceptible to other more serious types of infection.
Leaves and Lawns
Sycamores and lawns do not get along well. The trees have an abundance of leaves, and the dense shade created by their foliage makes growing grass under them challenging. Leaves tend to drop throughout the year, and the volume of litter creates an unappealing mess under the tree. In the autumn, when the tree's foliage drops, the large number of wide leaves typically creates a thick mat that, if not cleaned up, may smother the grass under it.