The American Sycamore tree is one of the most popular deciduous shade trees in the Eastern United States. It’s a common choice for urban developers and new homeowners because it’s fast-growing, easy to care for, and great at rehabilitating less-than-ideal soils.
In the right growing conditions, the American Sycamore growth rate is about 2 feet per year and will reach anywhere from 75 to 100 feet tall. Sycamores will flower at about 6 years, start seeding at 10 years and will start bearing fruit close to 25 years.
That’s a pretty basic estimation of the American Sycamore’s lifespan, so we’ll provide a full Sycamore tree timeline below. Plus, read more about the desirable traits of P. occidentalis, where to plant it, and common variations. Let’s get to it!
Complete Sycamore Tree Timeline From Day 1
American sycamore trees are coveted as shade trees throughout the Eastern US and perform well in zones 4 through 9. According to Clemson University’s Home & Garden Information Center, American sycamores can grow to be 10-14 feet in diameter.
It will take sycamore trees centuries to get that large, and if we planted one from seed today, most of us probably won’t be around to see it reach its full glory. However, sycamore trees can bear figs and seeds in as little as 10 years, which is a pretty attainable timeline. Here’s a step-by-step growth timeframe for the American sycamore:
Day 0: From Seed, Clipping, or Nursery
There are a couple of ways to get your hands on a sycamore tree. The simplest–and fastest–method is to head to your local nursery or greenhouse and buy a seedling. (Seedlings are any sycamore less than 10 years old).
Typically, you’re going to pay more for a larger tree. Very small seedlings can range anywhere from $8 to $20, but you’re usually only getting a 1-2ft seedling.
We recommend spending a bit more money to get a seedling that’s at least 6-7ft tall, which might cost anywhere from $80 to $100.
If you can’t find sycamore plants near you, or just aren’t willing to spend the money, there are a few other methods you can use to get a sycamore tree for your yard.
Propagate From a Clipping
It’s possible to propagate a sycamore tree from a softwood cutting from an adult sycamore tree, but it is more labor intensive. The first step is to gather the necessary equipment:
- Pair of pruning shears (like the Felco F5 Pruning Shears)
- Propagation tray with a clear lid
- Spray bottle with distilled water
- Rooting hormone (something like Hormex Vitamin B1 Rooting Hormone Concentrate works well)
You want to select a softwood branch from the end of an adult sycamore tree limb. The cutting should have a few pairs of leaves on it, as well as at least one set of buds. Only harvest a cutting on a warm sunny day during the mid-summer months. Taking cuttings in the spring or fall can decrease your chances of successfully propagating the sycamore.
(You can find sycamore trees in many parks across the United States, and if not, look around your neighborhood. Make sure to always ask the property owner before taking a cutting.)
Once you have an 8-inch cutting, dip the end in your rooting concentrate and keep it in the propagation tray. Mist the cuttings daily and keep them in a place where they’ll get ample sunlight.
After a few weeks, you should start to see roots growing from the cuttings. Once the roots are about an inch long, you can move the cuttings into pots with potting soil.
You’ll have to check your clippings and ensure they’re well-watered and fertilized. After about a year, you can plant them outside.
Grow A Sycamore From Seed
Your final option for growing a sycamore tree is to start it from seed. This is the least expensive option, but also the most time-intensive.
To start, find an adult sycamore that produces seed pods. They look like little spiky balls. In the spring, the sycamore will drop these pods and all you have to do is collect them. Inside the spiky outer layer, you’ll find the sycamore seeds. Soak them in distilled water for about a full day.
While they’re soaking, prepare your soil. Normal garden soil will not do the job, so you have to be very careful. A horticulturist from Oregon State University says that a good mixture is “⅓ pasteurized soil or compost, ⅓ sand, vermiculite or perlite, and ⅓ coconut coir or peat moss.”
With this recipe, you can easily make as much starting compound as you need. Alternatively, you can purchase seed-starting mixtures from garden or hardware stores.
Once you’ve prepared the potting mixture, dampen it with a water mister and plant the sycamore seeds about a quarter of an inch deep. Water frequently. In about two weeks, you’ll see a sprout. From that point forward, care for the seedling like you would a clipping, keeping it indoors for about a year.
Year 1: Planting Day
If you started your American sycamore tree from seed or a clipping, the one-year mark is when you should migrate your tree outdoors. If you purchased your seedling from a nursery, this is likely where you’ll start the sycamore tree timeline.
Pick A Spot To Plant
The first step is to pick the best spot to plant your sycamore tree. Now, American sycamores are incredibly versatile and will grow just about anywhere. However, they have preferences!
According to the Iowa State University Natural Resource Stewardship program, American sycamore trees prefer rich, deep, and moist soil. That’s why they’re commonly found near streams or rivers, or in shallow bottomlands.
That being said, they will adapt to grow in dry areas as well, but to see above-average growth rates, they need to be planted in wet, nutrient-rich soil with a neutral pH (even a bit alkaline is fine).
First, identify what area on your property is ideal for sycamores. We recommend picking a few spots in late spring or early fall and digging into the ground. Dig down about a foot and look at the soil. If it’s incredibly sandy or full of rocks, move to the next spot.
A bit of clay and stone is fine, but largely the soil should be free of anything that might impede root growth.
Remember: the spot you choose should receive full sun and have ample room for the sycamore to grow. In 100 years, it will probably grow to have a wingspan of around 75 feet, so you don’t want to plant it too close to power lines, other trees, or buildings.
Actually Planting Your Sycamore Tree
When you’ve solidified a spot to plant your sycamore seedling, you’ll need a few things:
- Shovel (a spade shovel is pretty helpful)
- Tree fertilizer (2-1-1 or 3-1-1 ratios are best)
- Landscape fabric
- Bark mulch/wood chips
Many people think you need to plant trees deep in the ground, and they end up digging too far down. Generally, the sycamore tree sends its roots out instead of down (sometimes spreading out over 6 feet!). You should only dig as deep as the pot you have the seedling planted in.
If you purchased a tree from a nursery, chances are you’ll have to dig down about a foot or more. If you grew a seedling from a seed pod or clipping, your hole will probably be a bit more shallow.
Try to break up any clumps in the dirt and remove any loose stones, root balls, or debris from the hole. Remove the seedling from the pot and knock off some of the dirt into the bottom of the hole. You want the roots to be nice and loose when you put it into its new home.
Packing Your Newly Planted Tree
Once you’ve lowered your tree into the hole, pack it in with a mix of your potting medium and the dirt you removed from the hole.
The next step is to ensure the soil retains moisture. To do that, we have to remove any vegetation around the tree. If you’re working with lawn grass, use the spade shovel to remove the top layer of sod in a circle around the tree.
You should create a circle that’s about 4 feet in diameter around the tree. (That means 2 feet on each side of the trunk).
When you’ve cleared the area down to bare soil, give it a good watering. Make sure the soil is nice and moist. Then cut your landscaping fabric to fit the circle you just made. You can cut an X in the center and fold in those corners to make a square.
Slip the fabric over the sycamore seedling and into place. Cover with your bark mulch or wood chips. This will retain moisture in the soil and look nice as a landscaping element in your yard.
As a final step, place a tree fertilizer spike in the soil around the seedling and give it some more water. You’ve successfully planted your sycamore tree! Make sure to water it consistently throughout the summer and fall.
Year 2-5: Monitor Your Sycamore Tree’s Growth
As we mentioned before, in the right conditions, the American sycamore growth rate is about 2 ft per year, and with ample watering in dry months and fertilization in its developmental stages, it can grow much faster.
After the first full year outdoors, your sycamore tree should have become acclimated to its new home. If you planted in the spring, you likely saw the tree grow multiple feet during the summer and fall, which is fairly common. If you planted in the fall, the seedling likely is a bit shorter but will have a growth spurt in the spring.
Keep track of the tree’s growth. Generally, after the initial growth spurt, you won’t have to keep watering the tree unless you’re in extremely hot and dry conditions.
The adult sycamore is popular because it’s drought-resistant, so try not to over-water it. Occasional fertilizer spikes are fine.
After the first winter, look at the mulch. If it’s gray and brittle, scoop some of it away and replace it. This is usually a yearly task and is best done in late spring or early summer.
After the first 5 years, check the landscape fabric. Depending on the variety you bought, it might need to be replaced. The sycamore root system is notorious for buckling sidewalks and creating little bumps in your lawn. So if the fabric is ripped, replace it.
This is a good opportunity to expand your circle. As the tree grows, its roots will stretch farther out, and you can help it along by keeping the soil moist. Expand the circle by a few feet and replace the fabric and mulch.
It is also good to note that if you are planning on growing plants under or around your new tree, there are plants not to grow under a sycamore tree AND plants that you can plant under a sycamore tree.
Year 6-10: All Grown Up
By this point, the sycamore tree is reaching its adult stages. It’s likely a fairly tall tree, about 20+ ft with a good-sized trunk. All you need to do is watch it grow!
Make sure you replace the mulch in the tree ring yearly and expand it as you see fit.
By about 10 years, your sycamore tree will produce seeds! It’s always exciting to see your tree grow up, especially if you grew it from a seed.
As your sycamore tree reaches maturity, it will produce fruit. While most trees don’t start producing fruit until about 25 years, you might see some small figs early.
How Long Do Sycamore Trees Live?
With the combination of good soil pH, ample room, and moist, nutrient-rich growing conditions, the sycamore tree can live for a very long time. Some of the oldest sycamore trees are thought to be hundreds of years old.
Simsbury, Connecticut boasts one of the largest sycamore trees in the northeast, lovingly called the Pinchot Sycamore. In 2016, the trunk was 28 ft in diameter and the tree was over 100 ft tall, with a canopy spread of 121 ft. In short, the tree is massive.
Another sycamore tree in Lancaster, Pennsylvania is estimated to be about 370 years old, with a trunk diameter of 27 inches. The tree was struck by lightning in the 1950s, so it’s partially hollow.
All this to say, sycamore trees will be around for many generations if you take care of them right!
Best Places To Plant A Sycamore Tree
The sycamore is a desirable tree because of its beautiful, flaking bark pattern and its edible fruits, the sycamore fig.
The American sycamore grows to be quite large and isn’t always the right tree to plant on your property.
According to the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the American sycamore is ideal for properties that have had some kind of soil contamination. It’s commonly planted around strip mines, old agricultural land, and water disposal sites to help bring nutrients back to the soil.
Generally, the American sycamore is well-equipped to deal with wet environments and is often found in floodplains, riverbanks, or swamps. Interestingly, seedlings can survive being entirely submerged in flood waters!
If you’re looking to plant a sycamore tree on your property, you should know they grow to be enormous trees, with an average width between 75 and 100 ft. Make sure you have ample room for your sycamore to grow to its full potential. You can also plant it in a wet part of your yard, like in a shallow dip or near a stream bank.
Do Sycamore Trees Fall Easily?
It’s no secret that sycamore trees aren’t the strongest trees in North America, but that doesn’t mean you have to worry about them falling over. Usually, sycamore trees will remain tall and strong for decades without very much care at all.
However, there are a few things you can do to keep your sycamore in peak condition.
- Trimming dead branches can help reduce unnecessary weight
- Keep your tree fertilized and watered if you live in a dry area
- Watch the leaves for signs of color or texture changes not related to changing seasons
While it’s pretty uncommon for your sycamore tree to just keel over one day, the branches are particularly brittle, which means you’ll likely have a lot of sticks in your yard. This is normal, however, and you can expect to see a lot of twigs and branches around your sycamore after a storm or gusts of high wind.
If you’re worried about your sycamore tree and are considering cutting it down, take a look at our guide on the reasons to cut down your sycamore tree.
Most Common Types Of Sycamore Trees
Most of this article has been focused on the American sycamore (P. occidentalis), but there are a few other variations of the tree that are just as common.
London Planetree (Platanus x acerifolia) – The English sycamore, also known as the London Plane, is a hybrid of the American sycamore and the oriental plane tree. It’s hardier than the American sycamore and is also a popular choice for air purification and urban planning.
Western Sycamore (Platanus racemosa) – Also known as the California sycamore, this tree is found primarily along California rivers, streams, and floodplains. Similar to the American sycamore, the Platanus racemosa grows to over 100 ft. tall and is primarily used for landscaping, park design, and urban development.
Arizona Sycamore (Platanus wrightii) – The Arizona sycamore is smaller than its relatives, reaching only about 80 ft. tall at full maturity. It’s mainly isolated to parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. But, like the Western sycamore, it appears near rivers and streams.
That’s A Wrap!
The American sycamore tree is a brilliant choice if you’re looking for a beautiful shade tree with really interesting bark patterns. It’s hardy and grows in wet areas well. It’s a low-maintenance tree and is drought-resistant.
The sycamore tree will grow 2+ ft per year in the right conditions and will reach maturity in about 10 years. After, you can expect the tree to grow up to 75 to 100 ft, with an even wider canopy spread.
Habibi, R., Millard, P., & Proe, M. F. (1993). Modelling the seasonal nitrogen partitioning in young sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) trees in relation to nitrogen supply. Annals of Botany, 71(5), 453-459.
Pulford, I. D., & Watson, C. (2003). Phytoremediation of heavy metal-contaminated land by trees—a review. Environment international, 29(4), 529-540.
Wood, E. M., & Esaian, S. (2020). The importance of street trees to urban avifauna. Ecological Applications, 30(7), e02149.