The Sycamore Tree
Sycamore trees are large, deciduous shade trees that thrive in a wide range of conditions. They are handsome trees with full crowns and thick trunks that rapidly grow to provide shade for your garden activities, a backdrop to the garden, avenues or a privacy screen or windbreak. Some shade trees are a little sensitive and may prefer the conditions found in more rural areas, but not Sycamore. It is famous for its resistance to air pollution and urban conditions, which is why it is often the first choice by cities for planting as a street tree. Many cities have beautiful tree-lined streets graced with Sycamore trees, casting shade and showing their beautiful bark. If you are looking for fast-growing, easy trees for shade or screening, you have found it in the Sycamore trees, which grow at least 3 feet a year and so rapidly mature.
Using Sycamore Trees On Your Property
Shade is an important component in any garden. Particularly during summer your garden will get little use by you or your family if it means being out in the hot sun all the time. So especially if you have a new lot with no existing trees, or a large open lawn next to your house, shade trees are vital. However during winter we crave the sun, so a tree that is always in leaf will not be welcome, especially close to the house, where it will block sunlight entering your windows and make your house dark inside. For that reason a deciduous tree is the best choice for a large shade tree and Sycamores fits the bill perfectly.
If you have a larger lot it is important to have large plants in the more distant areas that will create a sense of enclosure and mark an end to your property. Only large trees can serve this purpose and create a sense of place. Sycamores are trees that in a relatively short time will grow to 80 feet tall – large enough to mark the boundaries of any property. The bare twigs seen against a deep-blue winter sky are a dramatic site, as are the large rich-green leaves dancing in a summer breeze.
If you have a long driveway, then Sycamore trees make excellent avenues and show off their beautiful bark as you drive or walk along under the shady canopy they will rapidly create. They should be planted 10 to 20 feet apart for this purpose, and set them well back from the edge of the drive to allow room for their growth.
As well, Sycamore is a great choice if you are looking for a deciduous tree to create a boundary screen or windbreak. They can be extensively pruned, and established trees may re-sprout 10 feet in a year, so maintaining a dense screen is easy when you are working with a tree that can be hard-pruned at any time of year. They can be grown with a trunk – short or tall, or even cut-back to the ground to provide leafy privacy from the ground up.
What is a Sycamore like?
Sycamores are large trees, usually with a single trunk, that will grow to around 80 feet tall and 40 feet wide if left un-pruned. Since they are easily and safely pruned that size can however be modified quite a lot. Typically the trunk is short, although by pruning side branches as they grow it can be raised, so that you can easily walk or drive under it. The branches then ascend in quite an upright way, so this is not a tree that will quickly spread too wide for its location. A mature tree has a rounded crown, with leaves right down to the main trunks.
The trunk is distinguished by its mottled appearance. One reason these trees tolerate urban pollution is that they regularly shed their bark to reveal fresh new bark beneath that is free of surface dirt and so able to function better. This shedding produces beautiful patterns of grey, cream, green, tan and brown, giving the trunk a beautiful mottled appearance – a Jacob’s coat of many colors. So instead of looking dull in winter, Sycamores come to life and the bark is even more noticeable and attractive when the leaves have fallen
The leaves are large, up to 9 inches long, and divided into three, four or five lobes, so that they resemble maple leaves. In fact one of the Sycamores, which unfortunately can be a little weedy, so is rarely sold, is a true maple called Sycamore Maple (Acer pseudoplatanus). The leaves emerge quite early in spring and are a lovely mid-green shade which is quite bright, not the dark, dingy green of some other shade trees. In fall they turn brown and then drop to reveal the twigs and lovely bark.
Hardiness and Growing Conditions
Sycamore grows best in Zones 4 to 9, so you can easily grow this tree right across America, except for Florida, coastal California and the most northern states of the mid-west. It will do best in areas with warm springs and regular rainfall, so if you live in a very dry area, we have other categories of shade trees that would be a better choice, such as Autumn Blaze Maple, which is so drought tolerant it is widely grown in Australia.
Sycamores are known for their tolerance of all kind of soil. They will grow in hard, urban soils, for example along a road or under a sidewalk, as well as in more ordinary conditions. They do however grow best and fastest in deeper soils that are rich and damp, so if you have very sandy soil they should be watered regularly, especially when young.
Planting and Initial Care
When planting a screen Sycamore trees should be planted 6 to 10 feet apart. For an avenue 10 to 20 feet is a good distance apart to place your trees, so they will be able to mature as individuals, rather than as a hedge. Allow at least 20 feet from the house, so that they don’t endanger your roof.
The ground should be well-prepared, with some organic material and some superphosphate added, especially to poor soil. It is unnecessary to bring in new soil and in fact it is better to let your trees adapt to your own soil immediately. Dig a hole or a trench two or three times wider than the pot, but no deeper. Place your tree in the hole, replace most of the soil and firm it well down. Then water thoroughly, let the excess water drain away and replace the rest of the soil, keeping your tree at the same depth as it was in the pot. In wet locations it is best to plant your tree on a low mound. Trees often die from being planted too deep so that the roots suffocate.
During the first growing season, water your Sycamores every week. Give them a good soak, not a sprinkle. Once they are established they only need water during dry spells, when again it is best to give a good soak every week or two, rather than a little sprinkle every day or so. If you can, leave a hose-pipe trickling for a couple of hours around the base of the tree, as this will let the water soak in without it running off the dry surface.
Points of Interest
The American Sycamore is the tree most usually planted when you want to grow a Sycamore tree. This tree is especially tough and very suitable for a shade tree or screen. Other sycamores may become weedy from their seeds, or have disease problems. This tree was also once called Buttonwood, because of the round seeds, which look like big buttons. The New York Stock Exchange was founded under a Buttonwood tree in 1793 and so its founding documents are called the “Buttonwood Agreement”.
The wood of Sycamore is not strong enough for construction, but it is often used for furniture, interior work in houses and musical instruments. It also makes great butcher’s blocks and chopping boards.
Sycamores are easy trees to maintain. If you have the room, just let your tree grow, but trim off lower branches as it does, so that the main branches will be above the height of a person, or a vehicle if your tree is along a driveway. However Sycamores are famous for being easy to prune and can be cut back to a framework every few years, or whenever they grow too tall. The bare branches will re-sprout and send up a dense screen of shoots. It is best to cut back to the same places each time, rather than make new cuts into big limbs.
If you are looking for a shade tree that is easy to care for and beautiful, Sycamore are trees that will fit the bill. They are tolerant of urban conditions, so make an excellent city tree or a good choice if you live on a busy street or near a highway. Trees are better noise-buffers than fences and will quickly grow taller than any fence you could install, giving you great privacy and bringing calm and shade to your garden.