Sycamore tree, aka the “Tree of Life” according to ancient Egyptian mythology, is a glorious vision. It is the largest deciduous tree found in the Eastern part of the United States.
In addition to making handsome shade trees for large landscapes, they provide a storage area for birds that need a place to house food and create nesting sites. In this article, you’ll find out exactly how to grow this striking, bird-friendly, shade providing tree.
How to Identify a Sycamore Tree
Size and Scale
Spotting a sycamore is pretty easy. These massive trees can climb as high as 75-100 feet into the air. In ideal conditions, they can get even taller—up to 150 feet.
They spread their majestic branches 40-80 feet in width. As you can imagine, this tree provides a lot of shade. Sycamores grow at a moderate to rapid rate (two feet per year).
They have a moderate to long life span and can live up to 400 years. In its early stages of growth, it takes on the form of a pyramid. As it matures and starts spreading, the shape becomes more rounded.
The trunk, or base of the tree, can be up to 14 feet in diameter and is covered in handsome cream- to olive-colored bark. Indeed, this tree’s most unique feature is its distinctive, camouflage-looking bark.
You’ll find that the lower part of the trunk is covered in scaly, red to gray-brown bark. However, in striking contrast, the upper trunk has lighter-colored bark that peels in large flakes revealing white, green, and tan inner layers.
The base of the tree will be darker than the rest of the tree which is often much lighter, as you can see here.
As the trees age, the trunks develop a solid, light gray appearance. Its branches are equally striking.
Young ones have light gray or white bark. As the branches age, their bark becomes mottled and darkens to a reddish-brown.
When the leaves emerge in the spring, they are wooly and cream-colored. When they hit maturity they develop an appearance similar to the leaves found on maple trees.
Its large, thick, light-medium green leaves are four to ten inches wide. The leaves’ edges have a serrated, ragged, and simple look.
On the underside of the leaves, you will find small, coarse white hairs. In the fall it trades its distinctive green color for autumnal hues of yellow, red, and brown.
Fallen leaves blanket the earth in an explosion of vivid colors that signal the changing of the seasons.
As fall turns into winter, the tree yields round, fuzzy, fruit. The fruit appears as brown to tan seed pods clustered into a round ball that is up to an inch in diameter.
The balls hang on a three to six-inch flexible stalk either individually or in pairs. They stay there through most of the winter and fall to the ground during the spring.
These adorable balls have earned the sycamore the names buttonwood or buttonball trees.
Best Location to Plant a Sycamore Tree
This beautiful tree is perfect for settings such as large-scale landscapes, parks, or stream-side locations. Most home properties simply lack the space to allow this massive tree to grow without creating issues for the homeowner.
This tree has an aggressive root system. The last thing you want to do is plant it too close to your house or sidewalk.
The massive roots of the sycamore tree can easily uproot a sidewalk. So make sure that you don’t plant it anywhere near anything you don’t want lifted up.
Doing so could result in major damage to your foundation, driveway, or house’s water lines—not to mention your back pocket. You’ll also have a mess of a yard to clean up considering the amount of litter created by its leaves, fruit, and twigs.
Avoid threatening the health of your finances, sanity, tree, and outside structures by planting the sycamore at least 20 feet from your sidewalk or house.
Best Soil Condition for Sycamore Trees to Thrive
Soil lays the groundwork for sycamore trees to grow and thrive. Think of soil as the foundation under a house.
You wouldn’t build a house on the sand. Doing so would leave your home exposed to the elements. The first strong wind could send your lovely, little abode tumbling to the ground.
This is why you choose to build your home on a solid foundation such as concrete. You want your home to have the fortitude to withstand the fierce winds of harsh winters or dangerous hurricanes.
In a similar fashion, your soil needs to provide the proper foundation for your tree to flourish so that when the elements attack it, your sycamore will remain sturdy and unbowed by harsh weather.
Sycamores love fertile soil that’s packed with lots of nutrients. For this reason, you’ll find that sycamores aren’t fans of urban environments.
Alkaline soils mixed with loads of pollution welcome disease and stunt the tree’s growth. Opt for acidic soils. Sycamores tolerate clay, sand, and other soil types well.
Your soil needs to be packed with nutrients. You can even use potting soil such as seen pictured above when you’re first getting your sycamore seeds to germinate.
Just make sure that the soil drains well. Although this tree does prefer deep, moist, rich soils, it can become distressed when exposed to too much water.
Root rot can easily develop as a result of waterlogging. This is not good considering that root rot can kill your tree.
When reviewing your yard to select the best location, make sure that you avoid planting your tree in a spot that would overshadow flowerbeds.
The dense shade created by the tree’s canopy will prevent the healthy growth of lawn grasses underneath it. Also, put it in a spot where it can receive full sun or light shade.
How to Pick & Store Sycamore Seeds
Hand-picking fruit heads from a tree is the most common collection method. You should wait until the heads are just about to break up and the seeds are ready to fall.
When the fruiting head begins to turn brown and leaves fall, it’s a good time to start picking. Once the fruiting bodies have been collected, it’s time to spread the heads in single layers and dry them in well-ventilated areas on trays until they can be broken apart.
Even if the heads look as if they’re dry already, you will still need to layer and vent them. This is especially the case if you collect fruit heads early in the season.
Seeds that ripen early tend to have moisture contents as high as 70%. You can easily store sycamore seeds for extended periods under dry, cold conditions.
Sycamore seeds are found inside the fruiting balls that hang from the tree. You want to wait until the balls turn brown as seen here before picking them.
You can store them for up to five years if done correctly. Keep the moisture content from 5-10% and make sure the temperature stays in the range of 32-45° Fahrenheit if you plan on storing them for a long time.
Put your dried seeds in moisture-proof containers. Polyethylene bags make an excellent option.
Step-by-Step Guide on How to Grow a Sycamore Tree From a Seed
If you have the yard space for it, a sycamore tree could make a lovely addition to your landscape. It grows well in USDA growing zones five-nine.
This fast-growing tree is very hardy and can tolerate harsh environmental conditions. The tree’s robust root system keeps it anchored to the ground.
As a result, it won’t easily topple over when exposed to high winds. Stored or freshly gathered seeds that have been properly prepared are easy to plant.
Here’s what you will need to get started:
- 6-inch round nursery container
- Cookie sheets or paper sacks
- Peat moss
- Potting mix
- Rubber mallet or nutcracker
- Spray bottle
- Sycamore seeds
- Wire screening
- Zipper top bag
Step 1 – Get Your Seeds
If you or a neighbor already has a healthy, mature sycamore then start collecting seed pods when they turn light brown in color. Wait until after the tree’s leaves turn color before doing this.
Typically, this means waiting until fall. If this isn’t an option, then check your local nursery or garden center for sycamore seeds.
The best time to pick sycamore seeds is when the fruiting balls turn brown and the leaves change colors—a clear sign of fall.
You will need to let the fruit dry out completely. Cool it to 40 degrees Fahrenheit for 12 weeks.
Step 2 – Warm and Extract the Seeds
Remove your seed pods from their cold storage. Place them onto cookie sheets or within paper sacks to air-dry.
You’ll need to slowly bring them to room temperature—a process that can take a couple of weeks. You will be able to tell when they’re fully dried because they will crack open easily. To crack your pods open, you will need either a nutcracker or a rubber mallet.
Put your sycamore seed pod inside a paper bag and fold the top closed. If you’re using a rubber mallet, lightly tap the seed ball.
If you are using a nutcracker, gently squeeze the pod to break apart the seeds. Select the healthy-looking seeds. Toss the rest.
Donning a face mask and gloves, brush off the dust and thin, hairlike fibers on your seeds. Do this step in an area that is well-ventilated.
You can make this part a bit easier by rubbing your seeds in a piece of hardware cloth. Make sure that it has a medium wire weave (ten wires per inch).
Step 3 – Plant the Seeds in a Tray
Break out your planting tray. It should be shallow, but deep enough to allow the seed to take root. Within the first couple of months, you can expect your plant to grow to four inches or so.
You’ll find that sycamore seeds are best grown when first started in a tray and later transferred to a pot. Gently bury the seeds.
Planting your seeds in trays and letting them sprout as pictured above is the way to properly grow a sycamore tree.
They shouldn’t go lower than 1/8 inch into the potting soil. Break out your ruler if you need to. Give them space.
Six to eight inches apart does the trick. Cover your seeds with a sprinkling of mulch and peat moss.
Step 4 – Give the Seeds Some Light
Place your tray in indirect sunlight. As the seeds sprout they will soak up plenty of light. A good spot for your tray will be a place that stays between 70-85° Fahrenheit.
Be sure to avoid putting it in direct sunlight for very long. Keep the tray inside. You’ll want to avoid getting it soaked during a heavy downpour.
Step 5 – Water the Soil as Needed
Your soil needs to remain moist. This doesn’t mean that you have to water your seeds every day. However, you should check your potting soil each day to make sure it hasn’t lost too much moisture.
If it has, then you should water it. When you water the soil you should do so with the intent to moisture the soil, not drown it.
Test your soil by sticking your fingers into it. You know that it’s moist enough if you can dig your fingers into it all the way up to your knuckle and it feels damp.
Step 6 – Move the Tree to a Pot
Once the sycamore grows to six inches in height you’ll need to transfer it to a nursery container. Dig up some soil from your planting site with a trowel. You will need enough to fill a 6-inch round nursery container.
Look for nursery containers that are about the size of the ones you see pictured here. When you transfer your seeds from a tray, you will need to put them in a pot that will be deep and wide enough to support a growing sapling.
The soil should fill the pot until it is one-third of the way full. Toss in equal amounts of coarse sand and vermiculite. Mix everything together until it all looks well-blended.
Add water to your mixture. Allow it to flow freely from the bottom of your pot. The soil mixture will need to drain for about 20 minutes before you can plant your seeds.
Put your container outdoors against a south-facing wall that gets plenty of sun. Your sycamore will love a spot that stays within the range of 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Maintain the moisture level by watering your plant to a depth of two inches every couple of weeks. Avoid letting the soil dry out. If you need to, spritz the soil with water each day.
Step 7 – Plant the Sycamore in Your Yard
When your sycamore hits the two-foot-tall mark, it’s ready to be planted in your yard. It should be robust with several twigs that have maturing leaf buds.
A healthy sycamore will also have a well-defined root system and fully-formed leaves. Speaking of roots, you should check to make sure that they don’t grow so much that they fill up the pot.
Every couple of months you should gently lift up the sapling and its roots to see if it still has plenty of soil to grow in. If it’s becoming too big for the container, you will need to transfer it to a larger pot.
Don’t be afraid to pull up your sapling to check it’s root system. Sycamores grow quickly and it’s a good idea to check its roots to make sure they aren’t becoming too big for your container.
It can take close to a year for a sycamore to reach two feet, so you’ll need to get in the habit of checking your plant every two months. Once the year is up and you’re ready to plant your sycamore, start looking for a big planting site.
It will need lots of room to spread. Its roots tend to remain near the surface. This allows them to soak up the rainfall and stabilize the tree as it reaches maturity.
The main roots reach down about 30-inches and prefer spreading out to the side. For this reason, you should give your sycamore plenty of room to roam.
Opt for an area that gives you at least 20 feet of space away from your house, shed, sidewalks, power lines, patio, and other trees.
You don’t want your tree’s massive root system and huge canopy to create problems for you or your neighbors. The spot you choose should also expose your tree to six hours of direct sunlight each day.
It will love soaking up the sun. As it continues to grow, it will need the sun to stay healthy. Take about a week to review your yard to see which area gets the most sun.
Plant your sycamore directly into the soil of the spot you’ve selected. Once you start digging your hole for the root ball, you should line it with compost to boost nutrition to the roots.
As your tree forms its root system it can draw from this source of nutrients and start to flourish as it grows into a healthy, beautiful sycamore.
How To Water Sycamore Trees
Your sycamore needs a certain amount of water to survive. During your sycamore’s first summer, you will need to water the sapling every four-six days to a depth of two inches.
Break out your water hose. You’ll need to keep your sycamore on a regular watering schedule to help it thrive as it loves a moist environment.
Once the rainy season sets in, you can cut back on watering it. Sycamore trees are not fans of dry conditions.
Without the proper amount of water, the tree’s growth will be stunted. Plus, the tree will be more prone to getting diseases and experiencing pest infestations.
When your sycamore gets past its first couple of years, it can handle a bit of drought. Just remember that during the hotter times of the year, you should water it at least a couple of times a week. You can also give it a good, deep soaking if it’s gone about a month without a downpour of rain.
Protect Your Sycamore Tree from Pests and Disease
Anthracnose is the biggest disease problem you may face. Wet, cool springs allow this disease to flourish.
Signs of anthracnose are dark, sunken cankers that appear on the trunk and branches. The tree’s branches develop the appearance of a witch’s broom as a result of the pattern of bud growth and death that the disease brings.
Black fungal growth may also show up along the branches. You may also notice that the leaves become mottled and brown and drop early.
To keep this disease at bay, you will need to get rid of all the leaves in the fall. Forget about composting them.
Cut out branches that are cankered in the winter during the time the tree is resting. Cut your branches three to four inches below the cankers.
Pruning is a necessary part of maintaining your sycamore. Removing broken and dead limbs is a great way to keep your tree healthy and discourage diseases.
Break out the bleach and clean your tools. Mix a solution of one part bleach to ten parts water between each cut.
When spring arrives, spray trees at bud break using cupric hydroxide, copper salts, or mancozeb and thiophanate methyl. You can apply additional doses every seven days until temperatures climb above 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Other diseases your sycamore could experience include the following:
- bacterial leaf scorch
- leaf spot
- powdery mildew
Leafhoppers and spittlebugs are responsible for spreading bacterial leaf scorch. This disease will make your leaves turn brown and drop early.
To avoid problems with this nuisance make sure that you plant your sycamore in ideal growing conditions to avoid stressing your tree. Remember that your sycamore does well in rich, moist soil and full sun.
Canker stains can spread through open wounds on your tree. This is why it is so important to take special care as you are pruning.
You will need to sterilize ropes, ladders, and tools as you move from tree to tree. Signs of canker stain are cankers on the trunk and branches of the tree as well as small, sparse leaves.
You will also notice that the wood under the canker will be stained blue or reddish-gray. Shady areas that have high humidity are perfect spots to find powdery mildew on your tree.
The mildew will show up on twigs and leaves as spores which look like circular patches of grayish-white material. Powdery mildew can stunt the growth of the tree and cause leaves to drop.
Of course, there are annoying insects that can also cause issues for your sycamore and they include the following:
- sycamore lace bug
You will find that aphids are the most common pest to wreak havoc on sycamores. They make their debut in the spring and like to suck your tree’s sap.
Insects, such as aphids, love sycamore trees. Contact a certified arborist if insects and diseases start taking over your tree. You may need to have it professionally treated.
In the process, they leave behind a mess of honeydew that promotes the growth of sooty mold. Another pest, the sycamore lace bug, also likes to feed on your tree’s sap which is found on the undersides of the leaves.
This causes your tree’s leaves to turn yellow. Heavy infestations of these lacy patterned insects can reduce your tree’s growth.
Left untreated, these diseases and infestations can weaken and even destroy your tree. If at some point you think your tree is at risk of being damaged by these issues, contact a certified arborist.
You’ll need to have your tree professionally evaluated so the appropriate treatment options can be arranged. Of course, the best defense is a good offense.
So reduce your chances of dealing with these issues by planting disease-resistant sycamores such as the Bloodgood, Columbia, and Liberty.
Protect Your Sycamore Tree from the Weather
Harsh weather is a fact of life sometimes. Fortunately, mature sycamore trees are great at weathering storms and holding their own against cold weather and snow.
They can take a beating. On the other hand, young sycamores aren’t battle-tested and tend to not be as resilient. They need to get a few seasons under their belt to help them toughen up.
This is especially true if you get your seeds from a nursery. Your young sycamore tree will not make it if it’s exposed to temperatures lower than -34 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you live in the north you will have to take extra precautions to help your sycamore survive the winter. Older trees such as this one can withstand the cold because it has become strong over the years. However, younger ones will need your help to survive.
If you reside in the far northern states, you should get your sycamore ready to brace the chill of winter. As the weather turns chilly, you should lay out a two-inch layer of mulch around the trunk, or base, of your sycamore.
Doing this is an excellent way to provide the soil with more nutrients and help it hold on to moisture. Another perk is that the mulch helps repel pests that can infect your tree and make it weak.
Once you have spread your mulch to the edge of the sycamore line, you should line burlap around your tree as the snow begins to fall.
Prune Your Sycamore Tree’s Leaves & Branches
Another smart thing to do to preserve your tree’s health is to prune it regularly. Getting rid of dead wood will help your tree to maintain a strong structure.
Your tree will have increased vigor and be able to enjoy a longer life-span. Removing structural problems significantly reduces the chances that your tree will fail.
It’s good to prune because doing so gives the tree added exposure to sunlight and air circulation within its canopy. As a result, diseases are less likely to appear.
Get in the habit of routinely removing broken, dead, or diseased branches and their stubs so your tree will thrive.
You can prune broken or dead wood at any time of the year. However, you should save pruning healthy wood for the winter.
Be considerate of your neighbors and prune branches that droop near places where people walk a lot or park their cars.
How to Prune Sycamore Trees
Look at your leaders first. These are the branches that grow directly from the trunk of the tree. You should cut them back to two main leaders.
Be prepared to trim back new leaders as they begin to grow within the next couple of years. Doing so will keep the tree’s canopy from becoming too dense.
Massive canopies block out the light at the bottom of the tree. As a result, it will be harder to grow flowers or grass in that location.
Bald patches in your yard are not a good look. Once your sycamore becomes mature, you will only need to prune to get rid of dead and diseased branches.
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.