In the winter months, landscapes can be sad. Obviously, our plants are not actively growing and we tend to think about plants that are green, just to provide a color besides brown during the winter months. However, there are plants that can provide winter interest other than evergreen trees or shrubs. One of my favorite plants year-round is the American sycamore or planetree.
The sycamore is a large native tree, growing up to 100 feet tall with very large leaves. The leaves are 4-9 inches wide and are broader than they are long. The leaves have 3-5 lobes on them and are serrate as well. The flowers of a sycamore tree are not showy but appear in April.
The achene seeds are dry, dehiscent seeds with a tuft of hair on each seed. These seeds are found in tightly packed, round balls with a hard-central core with a rough exterior. The seed balls are about 1 inch in diameter hanging off the tree from a long stem, sometimes there are 2 fruits per stalk. Sycamore fruits ripen in October.
The bark is very interesting. It is a thin bark that is red to gray brown and as the tree grows, it begins to exfoliate to expose a white inner layer. With all of the different layers, the bark actually has a camouflage pattern.
Sycamore trees are quite adaptable. This tree prefers being planted in deep, moist, rich soils. It is difficult to use in home lawns or as a street tree due to the size. It is a fast-growing tree, which leads to the tree dropping branches throughout the season. The most common problems sycamore trees face would be anthracnose and lacebugs.
Anthracnose is a fungal disease that is more prevalent following a cool, wet spring. Anthracnose causes dark, sunken, dead areas along the veins that can expand to cover the entire leaf. This disease is rarely fatal but can cause the tree to develop cankers on the branches causing branch dieback. Fungicides are rarely necessary for this disease but if it is seen annually on the same tree, a preventative fungicide may be used in the early spring. Cleaning up infected leaves at the end of the season will help reduce the spread of Anthracnose from year to year.
Lacebugs are commonly seen from June through August. They are tiny bugs that look like pepper flakes with shoulder pads. Thank you to Scott Evans, Douglas-Sarpy County Extension, for the wonderful description. Lacebugs are found on the underside of the leaf and feed on the sap of the leaf with piercing-sucking mouthparts. Their feeding causes a stippling of yellow to brown spots on the leaf. In high populations, the whole tree will look yellow to brown. The damage is minimal and if left alone, predatory insects will move in to control the lacebugs. Pesticides are rarely necessary.
Sycamore trees could make a great addition to an acreage landscape where they have plenty of room to grow. The camouflage bark is a great addition to your landscape in the winter, or throughout the whole year. The large leaves help the tree provide a great deal of shade to your yard. Sycamore wood is heavy and coarse grained, making it a great choice for furniture, boxes, crates, and butcher’s blocks. Also, the seeds are eaten by many different bird species.
Sycamore trees need to be placed deliberately in an open area due to their large size. Given the right conditions, though, sycamores are an asset to any landscape due to the characteristically large leaves and camo bark. It will give you good shade in the summer and winter interest, making it a tree for all seasons. So, the next time you look for a tree, consider American sycamore.