The American Sycamore

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Platanus occidentalis is commonly known as the American sycamore, and is also referred to as the Occidental plane, American plane and Buttonwood. This is familiar and very common species that first originated from North America. It is generally called a sycamore wherever it is widespread, and is a name that is also used for many other trees in other areas of the world.


An American Sycamore tree is recognized most easily by the mottled, exfoliating bark it has. While all barks have to yield to give way to a growing trunk, the sycamore is possibly the tree that exhibits the exfoliation process more so than all other trees.

The bark of the trunk and its larger limbs tend to flake off in large, irregular masses, giving the surface a mottled look. The bark can be of many colours due to this, from grey to brown to greenish white. The smaller limbs can look whitewashed for the same reasons.

The leaves of these trees emerge from the bud and are pale green in colour. When fully grown they become a bright yellow colour on top and a paler yellow underneath. They become a brown colour in autumn and wither just before falling away.


A sycamore tree can grow to quite massive proportions. It generally reaches heights of thirty to forty meters and a diameter of 2 meters, if it is grown in deep soils. Some of the largest of these trees have measured in at fifty one meters tall and nearly four meters in diameter. There have even been those over five meters in diameter in the past.

American sycamore trees tend to be divided nearer to the ground into many secondary trunks that are free fro branches. The limbs spread out at the top to make an irregular, open crown. The roots are fibrous and the trunks of the larger sycamore trees tend to be hollow.

Flowers and fruits

The flowers of this tree appear in May along with the leaves. They are monoecious and borne in dense clusters. The flowers have tree to six petals that are very tiny and scale-like. They are slightly held together at the base. The filament is short and has elongated anthers. The pistil has a superior ovary that is one celled and is surrounded at the base by long, pale hairs. It has one or two ovules.

The fruits of these trees are in form of brown heads that have akenes inside them. They are generally solitary fruits and are only very rarely clustered. They hang from slender stems that are three to six inches in length. These fruits can survive through the winter.


The sycamore tree is very useful for its wood. The wood from this tree is mainly used in producing furniture parts and for the interior finish of houses. It is also used for flooring, pulpwood, particleboard, fibreboard, millwork, and speciality products such as butcher blocks. It is a light brown colour that is slightly tinged with red. It is a heavy wood that is difficult to split.

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Author: Tammy Sons

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