American Sycamore Tree – Platanus occidentalis

American Sycamore Tree – Platanus occidentalis
Platanaceae – Sycamore family
AKA Western Planetree, American
planetree, buttonwood, and buttonball-tree

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This massive Sycamore at White Pines State Park in Illinois has twin trunks nearly four feet across

The American sycamore is easily recognized by its mottled, exfoliating bark. The bark of all trees has to yield to a growing trunk; in the case of the Silver Maple and the Shagbark Hickory the process is not hidden, but the Sycamore shows the fact more openly than any other tree. The bark of the trunk and larger limbs flakes off in great irregular masses leaving the surface mottled, greenish white and gray and brown. Sometimes the smaller limbs look as if whitewashed. The explanation is found in the rigid texture of the bark tissue, which entirely lacks the expansive power common to the bark of other trees, so it is incapable of stretching to accommodate the growth of the wood underneath.

American Sycamore Tree

Platanus occidentalis is readily identifiable with broad, maplelike leaves and a trunk and limb complexion of mixed green, tan and cream. Some suggest it looks like camouflage.  It is a member of one of the planet's oldest clan of trees (Platanaceae) and paleobotanists have dated the family to be over 100 million years old.  A long-lived Sycamore tree can reach six hundred years.

The deciduous sycamore is fast growing and sun-loving, "growing seventy feet in seventeen years" on a good site.  Very often it divides into two or more trunks near the ground and its massive branches form a wide, irregular crown.

The outer bark peels away to create a mottled patchwork of tans, whites, grays, greens and sometimes yellows. The inner bark is usually smooth.  The leaves are very large with 3 to 5 leaf lobes and are often 7 to 8 inches long and wide. These pictures were taken on bottomlands along the the DuPage River, near Winfield IL.

Other common names are American planetree, buttonwood, American sycamore, and buttonball-tree. It is a fast-growing and long-lived tree of lowlands and old fields. Sycamore is valuable for timber and is also widely planted as a shade tree because of its distinctive white, exfoliating bark and broad, dense crown. Recently, it has become a favored species for use in intensively cultured "biomass farms" in the Southeastern United States.

American Sycamore Leaf

Leaf: alternate, simple, palmately veined, 4 to 8 inches wide, ovate in shape, with three to five lobes, margins coarsely toothed, petiole bases encircle and enclose the buds. Flower: Monoecious; imperfect, both male and females are very small and appear in dense round clusters, typically a single cluster to a stalk, appearing with the leaves. Fruit: A spherical multiple of achenes borne on a 3 to 6 inch stalk. Each seed is tiny, winged, and 1/2 inch long; maturing in November, disseminating in late winter.

Twig: Zigzag, quite stout and orange-brown in color; leaf scar surrounds the bud and the stipule scar surrounds the twig; terminal bud is absent; lateral buds are reddish, resinous, with a single, cap-like scale. Bark: Thin, mottled brown, green, tan and white; older stems are gray-brown and scaly. The most striking feature of this tree, often referred to as "camouflage" bark that readily exfoliates.

These huge Sycamores can be see at the The Morton Arboretum near Hemlock Hill on the west side.


  1. American Sycamore, Platanus occidentalis, Morton Arboretum acc. 262-40*6, photos by Bruce Marlin
  2. Song: Underneath the Sycamore by Death Cab for Cutie
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