Plant DetailShow Menu

American Plane Tree Platanus occidentalis

Phonetic Spelling
PLAT-a-nuz ok-si-den-TAH-lis
Description

American sycamore is a large deciduous tree that may grow 75 to 100 feet tall, is equally as wide, and has a trunk diameter of 10 feet or more. It is one of the largest hardwood trees, by diameter, in North America. This plant is pyramidal in youth, and as it develops it becomes more rounded with an irregular crown and supported by a few large diameter branches. Branches are usually spaced two to four feet apart along the trunk to develop a strong structure. The bark of the tree has a mottled look created by the darker outer layers peeling to expose the lighter inner layers. The bark peels off in patches and the whitened inner bark is the most ornamental trait of this tree. The tree has alternate leaves with 3 to 5 lobes and a coarsely toothed margin. American sycamore is monecious, having both male and female flowers on the same tree.  In spring, very small flowers mature in clusters, typically one cluster to a stalk. The tree produces a round fruit ball borne on a 3 to 6-inch stalk. The interior of the fruit ball is fibrous and has many tiny winged seeds or achenes.

The American sycamore is native to Southeastern Canada and the Central and Eastern United States. This tree reaches its largest size along streams, rivers, and flood plains. It is native to North Carolina and can be found throughout the state.

The genus name, Platanus, is derived from the Greek word, plantanos, and originates from the oriental plane tree or Platanus orientalis. The epithet, occidentalis, means western.  The common name, sycamore, was so named by European settlers because the foliage of this tree looked similar to the sycamore of the British Isles. 

This plant prefers full sun and moist, fertile soils. It is tolerant of clay, sand, loam, alkaline, and wet soils. This plant has moderate drought tolerance. It is pollution tolerant, and has a rapid growth rate, but has numerous pest and disease problems.

A dominant central leader, which typically develops on sycamore, usually assures that the structure of major limbs is desirable. Little corrective pruning is required other than removing the occasional upright, aggressive branches with tight crotches. The leaves of the American sycamore appear similar to a maple leaf; however, the maple leaf is opposite in arrangement and the sycamore is alternate. The lateral lobes of the American sycamore tend to bend downward and inward so that it looks like the leaf is folded or drooping.

When considering this tree in the home landscape, keep in mind that this will be a large tree and will require a large space. It may be used in a recreational area, and its tolerance of urban conditions makes it an option as a street tree. Its ultimate size at maturity and the messy littering of twigs and fruits should be considered.

Seasons of Interest:

Bark:  Winter      Buds:  Winter    Foliage: Summer and Fall    Fruits:  Fall and Winter

Quick ID Hints:

  • large deciduous tree, 75 to 100 feet tall and equally as wide, irregular crown
  • bark is reddish brown to gray, scaly, at the base, upper bark is light gray, exfoliates to expose the inner bark that is white to cream-colored
  • stems zigzag, stout, and orangish-brown
  • buds are large, smooth, and best seen during the winter
  • alternate, large, green, 3 to 5 lobed leaves, 4 to 9 inches wide, coarse teethed margins, lateral lobes appear folded
  • insignificant small male and female flowers, single dense cluster on a stalk
  • fruit ball with a fibrous interior and densely packed with seeds or achenes

Insects, Diseases, or Other Plant Problems:  Potential insects include borers, scales, Japanese beetles, caterpillars, and spider mites. Sycamore anthracnose can severely damage foliage and twigs and frequently causes premature leaf drop. This tree is also susceptible to canker, leaf spots, and powdery mildew. This tree creates much litter from its twigs, large leaves, bark, and fruiting balls if planted in the home landscape and will require significant clean-up. This tree is also susceptible to wind damage.  

VIDEO Created by Elizabeth Meyer for "Trees, Shrubs and Conifers" a plant identification course offered in partnership with Longwood Gardens.

Profile Video:
See this plant in the following landscape:
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • 'Howard'
'Howard'
Tags:
#cultivars#deciduous#shade tree#full sun tolerant#rain garden#interesting bark#wildlife plant#native tree#white bark#moths#large leaves#tsc#street tree#food source wildlife#cpp#fire medium flammability#NC native#deer resistant#children's garden#playground plant#wind dispersed seeds#edible seeds#Braham Arboretum#fantz#spiky#food source fall#exfoliating bark#food source herbage#Coastal FACW#Piedmont Mountains FACW#bird friendly#food source hard mast fruit#mammals#tsc-t#non-toxic for horses#non-toxic for dogs#non-toxic for cats#Audubon#wind damage prone#landscape plant sleuths course
 
Cultivars / Varieties:
  • 'Howard'
'Howard'
Tags:
#cultivars#deciduous#shade tree#full sun tolerant#rain garden#interesting bark#wildlife plant#native tree#white bark#moths#large leaves#tsc#street tree#food source wildlife#cpp#fire medium flammability#NC native#deer resistant#children's garden#playground plant#wind dispersed seeds#edible seeds#Braham Arboretum#fantz#spiky#food source fall#exfoliating bark#food source herbage#Coastal FACW#Piedmont Mountains FACW#bird friendly#food source hard mast fruit#mammals#tsc-t#non-toxic for horses#non-toxic for dogs#non-toxic for cats#Audubon#wind damage prone#landscape plant sleuths course
  • Attributes:
    Genus:
    Platanus
    Species:
    occidentalis
    Family:
    Platanaceae
    Uses (Ethnobotany):
    Wood is hard and moderately strong, but decays rapidly in the ground. It is often used for chopping blocks, furniture, and chipboard. It is also used to make barrels and crates. Native American hollowed out the trunk of the American sycamore to make canoes.
    Life Cycle:
    Woody
    Recommended Propagation Strategy:
    Seed
    Country Or Region Of Origin:
    Southeastern Canada and Central to Eastern United States
    Distribution:
    Native: United States--AL, AR, CT, DE, DC, FL, GA, IL, IN, IA, KS, KY, LA, ME, MD, MA, MI, MS, MO, NE, NH, NJ, NY, NC, OH, OK, PA, RI, SC, TN, TX, VT, VA, WV, and WI. Canada--Ontario. Introduced Ecuador, North Caucasus, Transcaucasus, and Turkmenistan.
    Fire Risk Rating:
    medium flammability
    Wildlife Value:
    Many songbirds including the Purple Finch, Juncos, American Goldfinch, and the Carolina Chickadee enjoy eating the seeds. The tree hosts wood-boring insects and leafhoppers.
    Play Value:
    Edible fruit
    Textural
    Wildlife Food Source
    Particularly Resistant To (Insects/Diseases/Other Problems):
    The American sycamore is moderately resistant to damage from deer.
    Edibility:
    Sap is sweet and tapped in the spring for use as syrup and sugar.
    Dimensions:
    Height: 75 ft. 0 in. - 100 ft. 0 in.
    Width: 75 ft. 0 in. - 100 ft. 0 in.
  • Whole Plant Traits:
    Plant Type:
    Native Plant
    Tree
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Deciduous
    Habit/Form:
    Dense
    Horizontal
    Irregular
    Pyramidal
    Rounded
    Spreading
    Growth Rate:
    Rapid
    Maintenance:
    High
    Texture:
    Coarse
  • Cultural Conditions:
    Light:
    Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
    Soil Texture:
    Clay
    High Organic Matter
    Loam (Silt)
    Sand
    Soil pH:
    Acid (<6.0)
    Alkaline (>8.0)
    Neutral (6.0-8.0)
    Soil Drainage:
    Good Drainage
    Moist
    Occasional Flooding
    Occasionally Wet
    Available Space To Plant:
    more than 60 feet
    NC Region:
    Coastal
    Mountains
    Piedmont
    USDA Plant Hardiness Zone:
    4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6b, 6a, 7b, 7a, 8a, 8b, 9b, 9a
  • Fruit:
    Fruit Color:
    Brown/Copper
    Fruit Value To Gardener:
    Showy
    Display/Harvest Time:
    Fall
    Winter
    Fruit Type:
    Achene
    Fruit Length:
    < 1 inch
    Fruit Width:
    < 1 inch
    Fruit Description:
    The fruit ball is a showy, fuzzy, long-stalked, round ball that is 0.5 to 1-inches in diameter. There are 1 to 2 fruit balls per peduncle, usually one. The stalk is 3 to 6 inches long. They ripen to brown in the fall and persist into early winter. Each ball is fibrous interiorly and contains many seed-like fruits called achenes. As fall progresses the balls break down and the seeds fly out in downy tufts on the wind. Typically the fruits fall to the ground and then split open to release their seeds.
  • Flowers:
    Flower Color:
    Gold/Yellow
    Green
    Red/Burgundy
    Flower Inflorescence:
    Insignificant
    Flower Bloom Time:
    Spring
    Flower Description:
    In April, insignificant, small monoecious flowers appear in clusters, typically one cluster to a stalk. The inflorescence is a pendulous, globose syncarp, solitary terminating on an elongated peduncle that is 3 to 6 inches long. Syncarps are hard when young, and crumb apart when they mature. The male flower is greenish-yellow, and the female flower is red.
  • Leaves:
    Woody Plant Leaf Characteristics:
    Deciduous
    Leaf Color:
    Green
    Leaf Feel:
    Smooth
    Leaf Value To Gardener:
    Showy
    Deciduous Leaf Fall Color:
    Brown/Copper
    Gold/Yellow
    Leaf Type:
    Simple
    Leaf Arrangement:
    Alternate
    Leaf Shape:
    Ovate
    Leaf Margin:
    Dentate
    Lobed
    Hairs Present:
    Yes
    Leaf Length:
    3-6 inches
    Leaf Width:
    3-6 inches
    Leaf Description:
    The leaves are large, 3 to 5 lobed, alternate, simple, stipulate, broadly ovate, acute, truncate to cordate, coarsely acuminate toothed, medium to dark green, 4 to 9 inches wide, and usually wider than long. The upper surface is smooth and bright green, and the undersides are paler and pubescent. The leaves can appear folded over or droopy. The petiole flares out and covers over a leaf bud at the base. The leaves turn yellow to brown in the fall. Leaves are floccose to tomentose when young, and become pubescent on veins at maturity. Stipules on young leaves persist into fall, are large, and are acuminate toothed.
  • Bark:
    Bark Color:
    Dark Brown
    Light Brown
    Light Gray
    Red/Burgundy
    White
    Surface/Attachment:
    Exfoliating
    Patchy
    Smooth
    Bark Plate Shape:
    Round
    Bark Description:
    The bark is mottled, reddish brown to gray, and scaly on the base of the trunk. The upper bark is light gray and exfoliates to expose the inner bark that is white to cream-colored. It is called "camouflage bark.
  • Stem:
    Stem Color:
    Brown/Copper
    Orange
    Stem Is Aromatic:
    No
    Stem Buds:
    Smooth/Hairless
    Stem Bud Scales:
    Enclosed in a single cap like scale
    Stem Form:
    Zig Zags
    Stem Description:
    The stems are stout, orangish-brown, and have a zigzag form. The leaf scar encircles the bud, and the stipule scar encircles the twig. The terminal bud is not present. The lateral buds have a single, cap-like scale and are reddish and resinous. Buds are large, conical, acute, smooth, hidden, and surrounded by swollen petiole bases until the leaf drops.
  • Landscape:
    Landscape Location:
    Recreational Play Area
    Woodland
    Landscape Theme:
    Children's Garden
    Edible Garden
    Native Garden
    Rain Garden
    Design Feature:
    Screen/Privacy
    Shade Tree
    Specimen
    Street Tree
    Attracts:
    Moths
    Small Mammals
    Songbirds
    Resistance To Challenges:
    Black Walnut
    Deer
    Drought
    Pollution
    Urban Conditions
    Wet Soil
    Wind