Sycamore tree (Acer pseudoplatanus) is an exceptionally large and fast-growing, broadleaf deciduous tree. Sycamore originates from Europe and was introduced to the UK several hundred years ago. Sycamore has long been the subject of controversy and is often considered a nuisance because it self-seeds readily and spreads rapidly – one mature tree can be the parent of many hundreds of sycamore seedlings each year. Undesirable sycamore characteristics are fast growth, large leaves and dense branches that cast deep shade, prolific production of sycamore seeds and masses of waxy autumn leaves that don't break down quickly and can create a slimy mess that creates issues with drains, pavements and railway lines. Sycamores are also prone to aphid infestations and these insects secrete a sticky honeydew that falls onto any cars parked beneath them, attracting dirt which is hard to wash off.
On the plus side, sycamore is hardy, thriving in exposed sites and coastal locations where it makes an excellent windbreak and provides shelter for wildlife. Sycamore is also tolerant of pollution and grows well in towns and cities. The wood is useful for making furniture and carving – traditionally sycamore wood is used for making Welsh love spoons and other utensils.
While the sycamore tree species is not good for the garden, there are several cultivated varieties with decorative, colourful foliage, which make good garden trees.
Identifying sycamore tree
Sycamore tree leaves are large, up to 15cm across, and have five lobes. Sycamore leaves have dark red stems when young and are mid- to dark green in colour. Dangling clusters of greenish-yellow flowers are borne in spring. Sycamore tree seeds are abundantly produced in autumn and have ‘wings’, so they readily disperse on the wind over a large area.
Mature sycamore trees form huge, stately, upright dome shapes with an attractively architectural head of branches. The bark is dark grey, smooth when young, then becomes cracked and fissured with age.
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Long-established sycamore trees are often found on village greens where they would have been planted to provide shade and shelter.
Old, mature sycamores have often become ‘landmark’ trees. One of the best known of these is the Martyr’s Tree at Tolpuddle in Dorset where, in the 1830’s, the village farm labourers used to gather and discuss working practices, in effect forming the first agricultural workers’ union. As this was, at the time, an illicit practise, six of the group were transported to Australia and became known as the ‘Tolpuddle Martyrs’.
The ‘Sycamore Gap’ tree
A 200-year-old sycamore tree became nationally famous in 2023 when it was chopped down overnight in an act of extreme environmental vandalism. The tree had been a majestic landmark on Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland, and a picturesque subject for photographers. It was used as a location in the 1991 film Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, after which it was nicknamed the ‘Robin Hood’ tree – despite being over 250 km from Sherwood Forest. Its felling led to a national outpouring of anger, outrage, and sheer astonishment. Discussions are under way about the site, which has UNESCO World Heritage status. The stump has been fenced off and should regrow new shoots, though sadly is never likely to attain the shape, size, and grace of the original tree.
Size, height and spread
A mature tree of the sycamore species (Acer pseudoplatanus) attains 30-40m in height with a spread of 15-30m. Varieties with coloured foliage such as ‘Brilliantissimum’, ‘Prinz Handjery’ and ‘Simon-Louis Freres’ are smaller and slower-growing, reaching up to 5-15 metres high and 5-10 metres spread, depending on variety.
Value to wildlife
Sycamore tree has benefits to a range of wildlife. Aphids provide food for birds and other insect-eating animals, and the holes that develop in mature trees make good homes for bats and birds. Bees and other insects feed on the flowers and the seeds provide food for mammals and birds such as greenfinches.
How to grow a sycamore tree
Grow sycamore in sun in any reasonable soil that drains freely. If planting the green-leaved species, allow plenty of space for the tree to develop its mature size and do not plant close to a house or any other buildings due to its extensive wide-spreading roots and branches. Ideally plant while dormant. Support with a stake and tie whilst young and keep watered for the first two growing seasons.
Where to plant sycamore
The species Acer pseudoplatanus is not really suitable for most gardens so think carefully before deciding to grow one. Varieties of sycamore with coloured foliage are much smaller in stature and make good specimen trees. These can be planted in lawns as a focal point, to make the most of their shape and stature.
If an existing mature sycamore tree causes concern due to proximity to roads or buildings, consult a tree specialist. Removing an established tree may well cause more harm than leaving it, as the hundreds of gallons of water taken up annually by a mature tree would suddenly have nothing to absorb it.
How to plant sycamore
Autumn is the ideal time to plant trees so the roots can establish before temperatures fall in winter. Late winter to early spring is the next best time. Bare-root (trees without soil around the roots) are available from November to March only. However, container-grown trees can be planted at any time of year if kept well watered for the rest of the growing season.
Dig a planting hole sufficiently wide for the roots to be spread out. Ensure the top of the root ball is at soil level, firm in well, water in, and mulch the soil with compost or chipped bark to improve moisture retention and discourage weed growth. Stake the tree with a short stake angled at 45 degrees and secured to the trunk using a tree tie.
How to prune sycamore
Pruning of sycamore trees is best done as little as possible to allow the tree to develop its natural, graceful shape. If pruning is essential, the best time is in winter before the bird nesting season gets underway.
Pests and diseases
Sycamore tree is often colonised by large populations of aphids. These exude a sticky honeydew which drips down and causes a nuisance to whatever is beneath. It is hard to clean off cars and soon dirties paving or roofs.
Tar spot is a common disease of sycamore that appears as conspicuous black spots on the leaves, which may fall early, though is not considered to be detrimental to tree health.
Advice on buying sycamore tree
- Field grown (bare-root) sycamore trees are widely available to buy whilst dormant, from November to March
- For planting outside of the dormant season, sycamore may be available container grown from nurseries and garden centres and online
- Specialist tree nurseries offer a range of sizes of Acer pseudoplatanus, from small sycamore saplings to large specimen trees
Where to buy sycamore tree
Varieties of sycamore tree to grow
Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Brilliantissimum’ – a compact variety with leaves that open bright pink in spring, turning yellowish-green mottled with cream and mature to dark green. A small tree with a rounded head of branches. Height x Spread: 8m x 8m
Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Esk Sunset’ – a small tree with leaves that emerge orange-pink, ageing to green splashed with cream and pink, with purple undersides. H x S: 8m x 8m
- Buy sycamore ‘Esk Sunset’ from Gardening Express
Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Prinz Handjéry' – pink young foliage becomes yellow-green and matures to green. The leaves are reddish-purple on the undersides. Dangling clusters of yellow-green flowers in late spring to early summer. A small to medium sized tree that forms a rounded head. H x S: 8m x 8m
- Buy sycamore ‘Prinz Handjéry’ from Ornamental Trees
Acer pseudoplatanus ‘Simon-Louis Frères' – its large leaves are pink when young, maturing to green and white. Medium-sized and moderately fast-growing. H x S: 12m x 8m
- Buy sycamore ‘Simon-Louis Frères’ from Ornamental Trees