The sycamore tree is a very fast-growing, hardy, deciduous tree that thrives when you plant it in zones four to nine. This tree is also referred to as the buttonball or planetree tree due to the spiky, brown, sycamore tree balls you’ll find. These seed balls appear on the tree during the winter months and fall to the ground in the spring where they open to release the seeds. While sycamore tree balls can be a hassle to clear out, you can use them for a variety of things, and we’ll outline the most popular ones and more below.
What are Sycamore Tree Balls?
If you’ve never heard the term “sycamore tree balls” before, you’re most likely wondering what they are. In short, they’re a quick way to establish a new sycamore tree as they hold seeds, but they also have several other uses. These spiky balls that your sycamore tree creates have seeds sealed inside. The tree produces them during the winter, and they fall to the ground and burst open in the spring to release the seeds. In turn, you end up with more sycamore trees.
Uses for Sycamore Tree Balls
One of the most common sycamore tree ball uses is to make ornaments for the tree at Christmas. You can glitter or paint them and use them as ornaments. They also mix well with holly, pine cones, and cranberries to create wreaths. You can use them to make a garland to display on your tree by alternating various seasonal items with the sycamore tree balls. You can make baskets that complement your holiday decor by dyeing or painting them and adding pine branches and pine cones.
You can also roll them in a mixture that allows birdseed to stick to them. In the winter, you can hang them outside to give your birds a food source. Birds will also eat the seeds from inside of the sycamore tree balls, but they’re not a favorite.
Also, harvesting the seeds to grow one of these trees is one of the biggest benefits. Because the trees grow so quickly and can reach up to 20 feet high in a few years, they are great for planting in areas where you need shade. The leaves on this tree are large, and they look like maple leaves.
A lot of people consider the sycamore tree balls a problem as they tend to fall to the ground in the springtime. However, you can collect them and allow them to disintegrate over time so you can use them in your garden. They add nutrients to the soil and make it rich enough to grow a broad range of plants. These seed balls do take a long time to disintegrate, so you can let them rot for fertilizer. If you don’t want them to fall over your driveway or yard, you can remove them in the winter months and allow them to dry to use them for other purposes. A few of these purposes include but are not limited to:
The prickly exterior on sycamore tree balls makes them fantastic but simple bird feeders. You can use vegetable shortening or peanut butter and pack it into all of the crevices by rolling the ball in it. Coat the ball with sunflower or pumpkin seeds and hang them outside during the winter months for the birds to eat.
When you wash and dry them, sycamore tree balls are an all-natural and useful crafting material. You can dye them using food coloring or non-toxic tempera paint to make holiday ornaments and hang them using twine or ribbons. You can build a festive wreath with these sycamore tree balls by twisting a chenille stem into a ring and gluing the balls on it around in a circle using tacky, quick-dry glue. When the wreath dries out, hang it up using a ribbon.
Sycamore tree balls will naturally disintegrate over time because they feature organic plant material in the makeup. So, you can compost your seed balls instead of bagging them up and putting them in the trash can to allow the nutrients to recycle and build up the soil. Because these sycamore tree balls take longer to break down than kitchen trash, you may want to put them in a larger compost container where they’ll decay slowly. You can break them open before you compost them to speed everything up.
Planting New Sycamore Trees
The most obvious use of the sycamore tree balls is to spread the seeds from the tree. Gather up as many of them as you can and dry them on a paper plate for a week before planting a new tree. The seed balls will open as they dry, and they’ll reveal tufted, small seeds. The seeds are something you can keep after you remove them from the fluff. Pick a sunny spot in late spring where your sycamore tree will be able to thrive when it grows. Sow one to three seeds roughly ¼ of an inch below the soil’s surface and lightly weter the spot. Continue lightly watering the seedlings for another two weeks until they germinate and push up from the soil.
Some waterfowl and woodland animals will eat the seeds you find inside your sycamore tree balls. Chickadees, squirrels, juncos, cedar waxwings, muskrats, and beavers can benefit from these seeds.
Seven Common Types of Sycamore Trees
The trees are huge and deciduous with a big crown of lush foliage in a deep green color. You may hear them referred to as Buttonwood or Buttonball trees. These names come from the fact that they produce balls that are roughly an inch in diameter and hang from the tree in the winter months. These balls will have a separate twig to hang on, and this is how the tree spreads. There are many types of sycamore trees that produce these balls, and they include:
1. American Sycamore
The American Sycamore tree is one of the biggest deciduous trees that gets between 90 and 120 feet tall and 10 feet or wider at the trunk. It has broad, vast leaves that make up a round-shaped but irregular crown at the top. The thick and wide trunk of many American Sycamore trees divide at the ground, and it gives a multi-stemmed look to the tree.
The leaves on this tree look very similar to traditional maple leaves, and they are between 10 and 22 centimeters long. They come in an ovate shape, and they have between three and five lobes. However, you’ll also find indentations between the lobe’s shallows. The leaves on this tree are a lighter green coloring in the spring and turn dark green during the summer. During the fall, they transition to brown and dull yellow.
The bark of this tree is a brownish-red coloring, and the color peels away during the spring months to show a pale white and gray bark underneath. This irregular mottling pattern happens in large masses, so the bark will have a camouflage look. This makes it easy to identify this tree when you see it.
You’ll find the sycamore tree balls hanging from the slender stems on this tree. They will drop off during the spring to give space to allow clusters of flowers to shoot out. You can find these trees growing along the rivers or streams or in wetland areas in the eastnern portion of the United States.
These trees have historically been grown as shade trees in cities in public areas. However, the roots of this tree can impact building foundations and sidewalks, so they aren’t very popular in public areas today. You may hear them referred to as Western plane trees or Water beech trees, and it grows best when you plant it in zones four to nine. You can grow them in virtually any type of soil you desire, but a well-drained and moist soil works best. If you give them the correct conditions, it can grow up to two feet each year.
2. Arizona Sycamore
Native to Mexico and Arizona, this tree is a very majestic deciduous one that will get up to 80 feet tall and have a spread very close to this size. You can commonly find these trees in deserts around the United States. However, it’s rare to find it in a native habit outside of this environment in the United States. When you compare it to other sycamores, it’s not nearly as resistant to drought so it needs a constant water supply to be happy.
This one will only grow well if you put it near streams or rivers, and it thrives when it’s in zones 7 to 11. You can grow them in large private or public spaces like parks, gardens, or farms. Their aggressive growth habits and the huge size make them unsuitable for residential planting. It grows upright without symmetry in a stiff informality.
The leaves of this tree look very similar to maple leaves with three or five deep lobes that get four to six inches wide. The leaves look green all year long, and they produce stunning fall foliage in shades of brown or golden yellow. They’re very anthracnose resistant, so this can help to keep them healthy.
Like other sycamores, the seed balls and fruits are very common on this tree. It produces tiny flowers in a reddish hue with fuzzy seed balls in a tan coloring. These sycamore tree balls are roughly an inch in size and drop in the spring. The trunk is a very light gray color and it’ll peel away upon maturity to show white patches.
Arizona Sycamore by Anita Gould / CC BY-NC 2.0
3. California Sycamore
Also called the California plane tree or the Western sycamore, this is a very tall deciduous tree that gets roughly 100 feet tall with a 5-foot diameter. These trees are decently tolerant to drought, and they thrive when you plant them in zones seven to nine in full sun. You can find them growing as ornamental trees in big residential areas or in public spaces.
This is a fast-growing tree that gets between 30 and 35 inches taller each year, and it can live for up to 150 years in dense forest habitats. In the initial growth stages, you’ll see it form an upright pyramidal shape. As it grows and matures, this tree will develop a rounded or oval shape that spreads irregularly. It grows best planted in moist soil, but it adjusts to acidic or alkaline soil conditions too. Growing it in dry soil can decrease the tree’s lifespan.
The bark on this tree is very rough, thick, and furrowed at the base. It gets smooth and thin the further you go up the tree, and it shows masses of thin branches. At the base, you’ll find bark in a brown or dark gray coloring that fades to an ashy white as it goes up. The bark will slowly peel off to show a patchwork of colors in tan, white, and brown.
You can identify these trees by the bigger three to five-lobed leaves that get up to 10 inches long and are almost just as wide. The leaves turn a glossy green and have a matte green color on the undersides. They show pretty foliage in the fall in shades or yellow and orange, and they fall from the tree in the winter.
This tree also produces tiny flowers in very spherical, dense clusters. Both female and male flowers are on the same plant in different clusters between February and April of each year. The clusters can have up to 100 tiny flowers each. Another identifying feature of this tree are the sycamore tree balls that show up right before frost. The pom-pom shaped seed balls are roughly an inch wide and tan in color. They stay on the tree until the spring months.
California Sycamore by Transient Musket / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
4. English Sycamore
English sycamore trees also go by the name of London Plane, and they’re bigger, spreading trees that are used for shade. They have a habit of growing in a rounded shape that is between 80 and 100 feet tall, depending on the growing conditions you give it. This also isn’t an original sycamore, and it’s a hybrid species between the old-world sycamores from Spain and the American sycamore.
This tree is hardy in zones five to nine, and it thrives when you plant it in soil that has regular irrigation. And, like other sycamores, it also produces small flowers in a crimson red and greenish-yellow color. The yellow flowers are male while the red are females.
The leaves on this tree are between 7 and 10 inches long. They are lobed leaves with three to five lobes each, and they have very deep clefts between them. The margins of these leaves also have edgy teeth, and they’re a medium to dark green for most of the year. In the fall, they turn a dull brown or yellow hue.
The bark of this tree is very smooth with a grayish brown coloring. At full maturity, the brown color will peel off to show a creamy white coloring. Unlike other trees, the trunk is shorter and straighter. This tree also produces the sycamore tree balls for the seeds. However, the seed balls on this tree tend to grow in pairs, and this allows you to identify the tree much easier.
5. Mexican Sycamore
As the name suggests, this type of sycamore tree is native to central and northwestern Mexico, and it’s a bigger deciduous tree. If you compare it to the American sycamore, this tree is slightly smaller at 50 feet tall with a trunk that is roughly 6 feet wide. However, in wild settings, it can get up to 80 feet tall. You’ll typically find this tree growing near streams and rivers, but it’s also very resistant to drought once it’s established.
This sycamore tree thrives when planted in full sun, and it grows well in zones five to nine. Also, it will adapt to virtually any soil, including alkaline. Even though it’s tolerant to drought, it’s recommended that you water it regularly until it establishes.
This tree will produce a large amount of maple-like leaves that have five lobes in an olive green coloring, and they’re roughly eight inches wide. The undersides of a mature tree’s leaf at roughly four to six years old will develop dense, short white hairs. This will lend a velvet-like feel to them. The leaves also have yellow veins with shallow notches between the lobes with very smooth margins.
The sycamore tree has smooth bark in light brown and white coloring, and it will show a patchwork pattern once it matures, just like other sycamores. As the roots in this tree are very aggressive and the tree has a larger mature size, it’s not a good idea to plant them near buildings or pavement. However, you can grow it as an ornamental tree in residential areas or in big residences as it’s not quite as large as the American sycamore.
A good thing about this type of sycamore is that it’s very resistant to bacterial leaf scorch, and this disease is a huge problem with these trees. Anthracnose and powdery mildew do impact this tree. Powdery mildew will cause white dust to appear on the leaves, and anthracnose appears in wet, cool spring weather and it can cause moderate to severe leaf drop.
This tree also produces both female and male flowers from December to February. These appear as balls with a green coloring that hang from the branches. The seed balls are between one and two inches in diameter, and you can see these sycamore tree balls from April to August.
Mexican Sycamore by Derek Markham / CC BY 2.0
6. Old World Sycamore
Old-World Sycamores are also called the Oriental Planetree, and they’re big deciduous trees. They can top out at over 100 feet tall, and it’s known to have a very long life span with a dense, spreading crown of leaves and branches. This species is native to Eastern Europe and to parts of the Middle East.
When it comes to the leaves on this tree, it produces large and thick leaves that get up to 10 inches wide. These are maple-like leaves that come in a medium to darker green coloring with five to seven lobes and serrated edges. You will also find deep notches between the lobes on the leaves, and the green coloring on the foliage will fade to amber, red, and yellow during the autumn months.
The bark on this tree grows very rugged and thick. The bark color is usually in various shadows of gray and brown, and it will peel off to show white patches. The bark will only start to peel away when the tree is mature, and this is between four and seven years.
Old-World Sycamore by Alex O’Neal / CC BY-SA 2.0
7. Sycamore Maple Tree
The final type of sycamore tree on the list is a maple tree. It has flying seed clusters that are referred to as helicopters because they spin in the wind as they float to the ground. So, you won’t see the traditional sycamore tree balls on this cultivar. These are very majestic, wide trees that get up to 110-feet tall at full maturity. One of the most important things to know about this tree is that it’s a maple. It’s a sycamore due to the features, but it’s from the Acer family. It’s native to Europe and you may hear it referred to as the plane tree maple.
These trees love to be in full sun locations in zones four to seven. Unlike other sycamores on the list, it won’t produce the fuzzy sycamore tree balls as it’s a maple tree. It also won’t turn any of the pretty fall coloring as maple trees. It bears the seeds through fruit that has wings, and just like helicopter blades rotate, they do as they fall to the ground. The seeds can also have a horseshoe shape and fall to the ground.
It grows five-lobed, broad leaves that are roughly six inches wide. The leaves are a very dark green coloring and they have shallow clefts between the lobes. THe bark on this tree grows smooth and gray at first. As the tree starts to mature, the bark gets rough and starts to peel away. This will show an inner coloring of yellow and orange.
Sycamore Tree Balls – Frequently Asked Questions
As this is such an odd feature for a tree to have, it’s common to have a few questions about sycamore tree balls. We’ve rounded up the biggest ones and answered them for you below.
1. Do sycamore tree balls contain seeds?
This tree is called the Buttonball or American Planetree due to the spiky, brown seed balls they produce every year. The sycamore tree balls appear during the late fall and winter months and fall to the ground in the spring. As they fall, they open to disperse the seeds.
2. What can you do with sycamore tree balls?
Because sycamore tree balls are an organic plant matter, they’ll eventually break down and decompose over time. Instead of bagging them up and tossing them, you can put them into your compost pile to allow the nutrients to leech back into the soil.
3. What do the seeds of the American Sycamore tree look like?
You can see sycamore tree balls hanging on the trees by November each year, but the seed won’t mature and drop until later winter or early spring. There is a similar looking seed ball from the Sweet Gum tree that is a similar size, but it has a much rougher exterior texture. When you clean all of the fluffy white hairs off of the sycamore seeds, they are shaped like railroad spikes.
4. What are the balls on the sycamore trees?
The spiked balls the sycamore tree produces have the seeds that you can use to grow another tree. They are produced later in the winter months and you can find them all over the ground early in the spring. One of the most popular uses for these sycamore tree balls is to dry them for a week, paint them, and use them as ornaments.
Now you know all you need to know about sycamore tree balls. They’re actually the seed pods that drop to disperse the seeds during the spring months after hanging on the tree all winter. We outlined many fun uses for them, and you can now decide how you want to use them this spring.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.