Sycamores Get No Respect

by Green Deane

in Beverage, Edible Raw, Medicinal, Miscellaneous, Plants, Trees/Shrubs


Sycamore has distinctive bark

Sycamore has distinctive bark

Sycamores: Not Just Another Plane Tree

Sycamore trees are not high on the edible list, unless you’re in need.

Actually, sycamores, Platanus occidentalis (PLAT-uh-nus ock-sih-den-TAY-liss) get a bad rap. Though they grow big and showy, landscapers don’t use them because they can have a lot of tree diseases. Homeowners don’t like them because they shed piles of maple-like leaves and disrupt underground lines. Woodworkers don’t care for the wood because it tends to hold water and twist when it dries. But that is one reason why we like it.

The sycamore is full of drinkable sap, read water when you need it. The sycamore can also provide a maple-like syrup as well, but you’ve have to boil many gallons of it to get syrup or sugar.  Knowing there is always a source of drinkable sap/water nearby has its advantages.

Sycamore seeds

To the forager, or the bushcrafter, another advantage of the sycamore is its light-colored wood can be used to make safe utensils such as wooden spoons, forks or skewers. Historically it was made into boxes to hold food as well as fruit and vegetable baskets.  Other early uses included barber poles, wooden washing machines, lard pails, Saratoga trunks, piano and organ cases, phonograph boxes, and broad paneling in Pullman train cars. It has been used for butcher blocks for many years because it is hard to split, as well as flooring, handles, and pallets. Incidentally, there is a second sycamore of interest but it only grows in California and Mexico, Platanus racemosa. Chunks of its bark can be use for a coffee substitute.

And while it may never come to this, sycamores can grow so large they have hollow trunks and many a settler sought long-term shelter inside a sycamore. It was not uncommon to house a pig to a horse inside a living sycamore. At one time two brothers lived for three years inside the hollow trunk of an American Sycamore. One can believe that given the size of the champion sycamore tree in the United States. It’s in Jeromesville, Ohio, and is nearly 50 feet around at the base (582 inches at 4 1/2 feet high.) It is 129 feet tall and has a crown spread of 105 feet.

Mia Wasilevich using the fragrant sycamore leaves as a wrap to keep lambsquarter seed stuffed rabbit leg moist.

Mia Wasilevich using the fragrant sycamore leaves as a wrap to keep lambsquarter seed stuffed rabbit leg moist.

And just as the tree is human friendly it is kind to animals as well. Sycamore seeds are eaten by some birds including the purple finch, goldfinch, chickadees, and dark-eyed junco. The seeds are also eaten by muskrats, beavers, and squirrels. Hollow sycamores can provide dens for black bear. Cavity nesting birds that call the sycamore home include the barred owl, eastern screech-owl, great crested flycatcher, chimney swift, and the wood duck. In fact one bird uses the tree rather cleverly.

If you look at a sycamore of any size you will often see a line of little holes in the bark, made by the Sapsucker. And while the Sapsucker likes sweet sap it has an ulterior motive. After the bird flies away insects come to feed on the sugary sap. The bird then returns and eats he bugs. Clever bird. Hummingbirds also eat the seeping sap.

The naming of the sycamore is a rather complex affair. Sycamore is from two Greek words siga and mora which  mean “Fig and mulberry.”  First there was a fig tree in the Middle East called Ficus sycomorus, the Sycomore Fig of Bible fame. The American sycamore’s leafs and round seeds were reminiscent of the Sycomore Fig, thus it was called Sycamore. It’s botanical name is a combination of Greek and Dead Latin.  Planatos (plane) was a Greek name for the tree, and occidentalis means “of the west” to separate it from similar European trees. Greeks also call the tree Daphne, a strange little word. Depending upon the accent in Greek it can be the tree and an area of Athens that once had an insane asylum, and where we get the word “daffy” in English. Racemosa means cluster and refers to the seed cluster of the California sycamore.

Also, according to Herodotus, the Greeks owed some of their success to the charm of the plane tree. In 480 BC, invading Persian King Xerxes camped his army in a grove of those trees. The king was so enamored by them that he put off his march for a few days. This delay helped lose Xerxes the war, and Greece went on to build the Athenian Empire.

The American sycamore is sometimes confused with the several other trees in the same family that are similar in appearance. If the tree has single seed pod, it is the sycamore. If there are two seed pods together, it’s a London planetree. If there are 3-5 seed pods, it is an Oriental planetree which has the seed pods hanging like beads. Those seed pods when dry have a coating of tiny hairs and can irritate air passages, so handle them carefully. However, that same hair makes excellent tinder.

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile

IDENTIFICATION: Tall tree resembling a maple with mottled bark, leaves palmate, large, eight inches wide and long or more, with three lobes, glossy green on top, paler underneath. Non-edible fruit, a brown cluster.

TIME OF YEAR: Sap availability depends on location, year round in warm areas.

ENVIRONMENT: Grows best on sandy loams or loam with a good supply of ground water, typically on the edges of lakes and streams. Found in eastern North America, except the California Sycamore.

METHOD OF PREPARATION: For the American sycamore, the occidentalis, sap, tap like a maple. For the California Sycamore, the Racemosa, put chips of the bark and root in hot water.



Native Americans used Platanus occidentalis for a variety of medicinal purposes, including cold and cough remedies, as well as dietary, dermatological, gynecological, respiratory, and gastrointestinal aids


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{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 VICTORIA RUIZ January 21, 2013 at 20:49

Thanks, you answered all my questions


2 Theron Cooper February 16, 2013 at 19:24


Just wanted to thank you for the informative web site and the excellent information you have shared. It has helped me identify this tree and also understand some of it’s historic uses.

Kind Regards,
Theron Cooper


3 Deborah May 23, 2013 at 18:20

Thanks for showing love to Sycamore! For some reason it gets very little respect, considering its great size. Even in a standard tree field guide there is barely more than a passage.


4 Ben December 20, 2013 at 14:34

My dog eats sycamore bark and small twigs. Is he trying to tell me something?


5 Green Deane December 20, 2013 at 16:14

He likes to bark.


6 Ben December 21, 2013 at 12:43

Other than recharging his “barker” what nutritional value or harm does this do if any?


7 Breandán Mac Séarraigh June 13, 2014 at 16:11

That is a sort of plane tree (eastern plane), not sycamore as we know it in Ireland anyway. Real sycamore is Acer pseudoplatanus.


8 Green Deane June 13, 2014 at 17:59

Here an Acer is called a maple not a sycamore.


9 John June 20, 2014 at 10:41

I once read that sycamores create space for themselves by exuding a substance into the ground that is poisonous to other kinds of trees. True or false? If true, do you know how long the poison lasts after the sycamore dies?


10 Green Deane July 7, 2014 at 16:49

I have no reference to that. I know other trees do, such as the Black Walnut.


11 diane July 27, 2014 at 22:08

I heard it was unsafe to use sycamore wood for grilling, is that true?


12 Green Deane July 27, 2014 at 22:15

No. Sycamore wood is inert safe even for food bowls and the like.


13 Matthew October 27, 2014 at 00:23

is it safe to drink the sap of the london planetree and oriental planetree


14 Green Deane October 27, 2014 at 13:24

If they are of the genus Platanus yes.


15 Jessie B December 16, 2014 at 14:53

I too was taken aback at the picture of what I, as a European, know as a plane tree. Dean, I’m sure you have lots of overseas readers who might be confused by this particular issue. I read very recently on the flutrackers website (which covers all manner of illnesses) that 100 horses had died in Ireland from eating (winged) sycamore seeds (Acer pseudoplatanus), which I see in ‘Botanica’s Trees and Shrubs’ is known in the US as the Sycamore Maple.


16 Green Deane December 16, 2014 at 16:50

Yes, in Europe it is called the Plane’s tree and in Greek it is like the girl’s name Daphane except it is said daf-ah-KNEEE… it just crossed my mind not to say to some one named Daphane “oh, your name means plain….” Common names aside Maples are in the Acer genus whereas the Sycamore is Platanus.


17 Carole December 17, 2014 at 23:13

To me, it looks like Longfellow has just removed his hat. His hair looks a bit sweaty and mashed down. Nice article, you’ll have my mind wandering each time I see an old photo.


18 eswari December 21, 2014 at 02:36

Thanks Dean, Great writeup. Love all trees.


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