Photo Credit: John Rusk from Berkeley, CA, United States of America, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Beauty of California Sycamores: Landscaping Tips and Care

The California Sycamore, known scientifically as Platanus racemosa, stands as a majestic addition to any landscape with its distinctive mottled bark and broad, lush foliage. Native to California’s diverse ecosystems, this tree not only enhances aesthetic appeal but also plays a crucial role in environmental health.

This article delves into the essentials of nurturing California Sycamores, from planting to pest management, ensuring these trees thrive in your landscape in Burbank and anywhere in California.

Identification and Characteristics of the California Sycamores

The California Sycamore, Platanus racemosa, is a remarkable tree native to North America, particularly thriving in central and southern California, as well as Baja California. It belongs to the Platanaceae family, which includes other notable species such as the London Planetree and the American sycamore. These trees are renowned for their substantial height and are frequently planted in urban areas for their shade-providing qualities.

Habit and Growth

California Sycamores are medium to tall trees, growing between 40 to 100 feet in height at maturity. They typically exhibit a pyramidal shape in their youth, transitioning to an oval or rounded crown as they age. Notably, their roots grow aggressively downwards when they have access to groundwater, a characteristic beneficial for stabilizing riverbanks but potentially problematic in urban settings.

“In Burbank, we often see California Sycamores reaching their full height, making them a prominent feature of our urban landscape,” notes our seasoned arborist at Burbank Tree Pros.

Burbank Tree Pros

Bark and Twigs

The bark of the California Sycamore is its most distinctive feature. In younger trees, it displays a greenish-gray color, peeling away to reveal a starkly contrasting pure white inner bark. As the tree matures, the bark on the trunk turns into a dark brown hue, thickening to about 1 to 3 inches. 

Young twigs are slender and covered in fine hairs, maturing into a smooth, reddish-brown appearance. The tree’s new growth is characterized by cone-shaped lateral buds emerging from the intersection of the leaf and stem, a trait that sets it apart from other species.


California Sycamore leaves are large, typically measuring 5-10 inches long, and are known to shed annually with the onset of colder weather and shorter days. We advise our clients to mulch the fallen leaves to enhance soil health.

These leaves are simple, undivided blades, generally having 3-5 lobes. The petioles, which attach the leaves to the stem, are long, hairy, and swollen at the base. The leaf arrangement is alternating, meaning a single leaf is attached at each node of the stem on opposite sides, a configuration that aids in efficient photosynthesis.

Flowers and Fruits

This species is monoecious, with both male and female reproductive organs present on the same plant. The flowers are tiny, found in dense round heads resembling fuzzy gumballs. The fruit is a golf ball-sized head of tufted achenes, with each achene containing a single seed. These fruits, typically three to seven in number, hang on a stalk and are dispersed by wind at maturity.

Ecological Importance

At Burbank Tree Pros, we’ve observed how the seed dispersal mechanism of the California Sycamore is crucial for its rapid reestablishment after events like floods. Our team works closely with local environmental groups to preserve these natural habitats.

The seed dispersal mechanism of the California Sycamore is wind-driven, allowing seeds to travel significant distances, which is crucial for the species’ rapid reestablishment after events like floods. Pollination is also wind-assisted, facilitating widespread gene dispersal. The tree’s seeds are a vital food source for wildlife, including squirrels, small rodents, and various bird species. Its bark serves as a food source for beavers and fox squirrels, while the tree itself provides nesting sites and food for birds like red-tail hawks, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds. The larvae of the western tiger swallowtail butterfly rely on this tree for nourishment.

Human Utilization

Historically, the California Sycamore has been used for more than just providing shade. Native Americans utilized its inner bark for food and medicinal purposes, its leaves for baking, and branches for construction. Today, sycamore wood, classified as a hardwood, is commonly used for veneers, butcher blocks, furniture, and pulpwood.

Conservation Notes

In our work at Burbank Tree Pros, we’ve seen firsthand the decline of California Sycamore’s natural habitat, especially in central California’s wetlands. Our mission is to not only care for individual trees but also advocate for the conservation of this species and its ecosystem. 

This decline not only affects the tree itself but also impacts the habitats of numerous birds, insects, and mammals, highlighting the need for conservation and appreciation of this magnificent species and its ecosystem.

Planting and Site Selection

Choose the Right Location

Selecting an ideal location for your California Sycamore is crucial. It not only affects the tree’s growth but also its long-term health and interaction with the surrounding environment. We often help clients in Burbank select the perfect spot for their California Sycamore, considering factors like space and sunlight

Here are the basics you need to pay attention to when choosing the right location:

Soil and Drainage

The soil’s quality and drainage capacity are vital for the health of a California Sycamore. These aspects are key to providing the necessary support for the tree’s growth. Keep these points in mind when evaluating soil and drainage:

Planting Depth and Technique

The way you plant your California Sycamore significantly impacts its initial development and overall health. Here’s what you should consider for proper planting:

Considerations for Urban Landscaping

In urban settings, the unique challenges and constraints require careful planning for California Sycamores. Here are some urban-specific considerations:

Ecological Considerations

Integrating ecological considerations into your planting strategy not only benefits the tree but also the local environment. Here are some ecological factors to consider:

Watering and Irrigation Needs

Proper watering and irrigation are critical for the health and growth of California Sycamores (Platanus racemosa). These trees thrive with deep, infrequent watering, which encourages the development of strong, deep root systems. Our team at Burbank Tree Pros uses a deep watering technique, especially during the dry summer months in Burbank. Here are detailed guidelines for effectively watering California Sycamores:

Frequency and Volume of Watering

Soil Moisture Monitoring

Soil Type Considerations

Watering Techniques

Record Keeping and Observation

By following these guidelines, you can ensure that your California Sycamore receives the right amount of water to prosper. Remember, the goal is to maintain a balance where the tree gets enough water for growth and health, but not so much that it leads to waterlogging and associated problems.

Mulching and Soil Health for California Sycamores

Proper mulching and soil management are crucial for the growth and health of California Sycamores (Platanus racemosa). Eucalyptus cladocalyx mulch has been particularly effective in our projects at Burbank Tree Pros. It’s excellent for moisture retention and weed control. 

The benefits of using specific types of mulch, such as Eucalyptus cladocalyx, are well-documented and can significantly impact the development of these majestic trees.

The Impact of Eucalyptus Cladocalyx Mulch

A study by Downer and Faber (2006) highlights the effectiveness of Eucalyptus cladocalyx mulch in promoting the growth of California Sycamores. This type of mulch has been found to:

Practical Tips for Mulching California Sycamores

To maximize the benefits of mulching for California Sycamores, it’s important to follow these practical guidelines:

Additional Considerations

Apart from the specific benefits of Eucalyptus cladocalyx mulch, it’s essential to consider the general best practices in mulching:

Pest and Disease Management for California Sycamores

California Sycamores are susceptible to diseases like powdery mildew and pests such as the ambrosia beetle. At Burbank Tree Pros, we’ve developed effective strategies to manage powdery mildew and ambrosia beetle infestations, common issues for California Sycamores in our area.

Powdery mildew, caused by the fungus Microsphaera platani, can be mitigated through proper air circulation and avoiding overhead watering. For ambrosia beetle infestations, a combination of systemic insecticides and fungicides is recommended for effective control (Glawe, 2003); (Jones et al., 2017).

Powdery Mildew

One of the common diseases affecting California Sycamores is powdery mildew, caused by the fungus Microsphaera platani Howe. This disease was notably identified on American sycamore trees in Washington State, indicating its prevalence in various regions. Powdery mildew presents as a white, powdery coating on leaves and can lead to leaf discoloration and drop. To manage this disease, ensure good air circulation around the tree and avoid overhead watering, which can exacerbate the spread of the fungus. Fungicidal treatments can be used for severe cases, but preventive measures are most effective in mitigating its impact (Glawe, 2003).

Invasive Ambrosia Beetle

The ambrosia beetle, specifically the polyphagous shot hole borer, poses a significant threat to California Sycamores. This beetle, along with its associated fungi, can cause branch dieback and eventual tree mortality. Research indicates that insecticide-fungicide combinations are generally more effective than single treatments. A combination of a systemic insecticide (emamectin benzoate), a contact insecticide (bifenthrin), and a fungicide (metconazole) has shown some level of effectiveness. It’s crucial to apply these treatments during the early stages of infestation for better control (Jones et al., 2017).

Natural Aging

California Sycamores, like all trees, undergo a natural aging process where leaves turn yellow and dry out. This is a natural, irreversible process controlled by the plant’s genetic coding and the production of ethylene. While there’s no way to prevent this aging process, maintaining good health through appropriate watering, fertilizing, and sunlight exposure can prolong the tree’s life.


Caterpillars, the larvae of butterflies and moths, can also affect California Sycamores. They feed on leaves, creating large, irregular holes. Control methods include handpicking, using Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) for an organic solution, applying chili extract, or introducing beneficial insects like parasitic wasps. Preventive steps include regular monitoring for eggs, using insect netting, and encouraging plant diversity to attract predatory insects.

Sap-Sucking Insects

Sap-sucking insects, such as aphids, scale bugs, and mites, create yellow or white spots on leaves. They weaken the plant and can spread diseases. Management includes hand-picking, using targeted insecticides, and introducing natural predators like ladybugs. Maintaining plant health and cleanliness in the garden can prevent infestations.

Proactive and regular monitoring, combined with effective treatment strategies, can greatly help in managing these pests and diseases, ensuring the health and longevity of California Sycamores in your landscape.

Pruning and Maintenance of California Sycamores

We recommend pruning California Sycamores during dormancy to minimize stress. It’s a practice we’ve perfected over the years to maintain the health and aesthetics of these trees.

Regular pruning is crucial for maintaining the tree’s shape and health. Removing dead or diseased branches not only improves appearance but also prevents the spread of diseases and pests. Pruning should be done with care to avoid over-trimming, which can stress the tree.

Overview of Pruning Needs

California Sycamores, while fast-growing, generally require minimal pruning. Routine heavy pruning isn’t necessary, but occasional pruning can enhance the tree’s appearance and health. This involves removing diseased, damaged, or dead foliage and shaping the tree.

When to Prune

The ideal time for pruning California Sycamores is from late winter to early spring. This timing minimizes stress and damage to the tree. It’s crucial to prune before the spring growth begins, as this allows the tree to heal quickly and reduces the risk of disease.

Pruning Young Trees

For young California Sycamores, pruning starts in the second winter after transplantation. Initially, prune to remove excessive branches on the trunk. In the third year, focus on retaining branches that spread at about a 45° angle from the trunk, pruning off others in batches after bud sprouting. This encourages a taller, healthier treetop over time.

Pruning Mature Trees

In mature California Sycamores, pruning should be limited to removing damaged, diseased, or overly dense branches. This helps reduce water evaporation and nutrition loss. If branches interfere with buildings or other structures, they should be pruned back sensibly. Keep lateral branches shorter than the main branches to maintain a balanced structure.

Pruning Techniques

Use sharp pruning shears for small branches and a pruning saw for branches over three-quarters of an inch in diameter. Follow the “three-cut method” for larger branches to prevent bark tearing and ensure proper healing:

Post-Pruning Care

After pruning, there’s no need for immediate watering as it can increase the risk of fungal infections. However, applying a balanced fertilizer can promote healthy regrowth. Dispose of diseased or damaged foliage properly to prevent the spread of pathogens.

Special Considerations

Professional Assistance

For tall or large trees, consider hiring a professional arborist to ensure safe and effective pruning. They can handle complex pruning tasks and provide advice on the overall health and maintenance of your California Sycamore.

Environmental Benefits and Urban Impact

In urban landscapes, California Sycamores are more than just decorative. They play a vital role in carbon sequestration, thereby mitigating climate change impacts. These trees also offer significant cooling effects, making urban areas more livable during hot summers. Their ability to sequester carbon dioxide, while requiring consideration of their carbon footprint in maintenance practices, highlights their environmental significance (McPherson et al., 2015).

Environmental Benefits and Urban Impact of California Sycamores in Burbank and California

The California Sycamore, Platanus racemosa, is not only a symbol of natural beauty but also a significant ecological asset, particularly in urban areas like Burbank and California at large. This section aims to provide a more in-depth look at the environmental impact of these trees, utilizing specific data and practical insights.

California Sycamores in the Los Angeles Landscape

In the urban ecosystem of Los Angeles, which includes cities like Burbank, California Sycamores represent a small but impactful portion of the urban forest. With a total of 26,830 trees, they make up 0.4% of the tree population. Despite this seemingly small percentage, their contribution is substantial, accounting for 4% of the total leaf area in the region. This significant leaf area contributes to their high Impact Value Assessment (IVa) of 4.4. The median diameter at breast height (Dbh) of these trees is 17.5 inches, with an average of 15.9 inches, indicating a mature and well-established population. They also have a considerable basal area, a measure of their overall size and health, totaling 44,819 ft². In terms of monetary value, the structural worth of California Sycamores in Los Angeles is estimated to be around $110.8 million, underlining their substantial contribution to the urban landscape.

Carbon Sequestration and Lifecycle Assessment

The life cycle assessment of carbon dioxide for different arboricultural practices in Los Angeles reveals critical insights into the environmental impact of maintaining trees like the California Sycamore. While the arboriculture industry contributes to CO2 removal from the atmosphere through tree planting and maintenance, it also generates CO2 emissions through the use of heavy-duty equipment and vehicles. The balance of these two factors is crucial in understanding the net environmental impact of urban forestry practices. Specifically, for California Sycamores in Los Angeles, the study found that the total CO2 emissions associated with arboricultural activities could exceed the amount of CO2 sequestered by these trees over a 50-year period. However, with mindful management practices, this trend can be reversed to achieve a net reduction in CO2 emissions.

Key Strategies for Maximizing Environmental Benefits

Urban Heat Island Mitigation and Air Quality

California Sycamores, with their extensive leaf coverage, play a vital role in mitigating the urban heat island effect. This is particularly relevant in cities like Burbank, where increasing green canopy cover can significantly cool urban areas during hot summer months. Additionally, these trees improve air quality by absorbing pollutants and producing oxygen, contributing to a healthier environment for urban residents.

Biodiversity and Ecosystem Support

Beyond their climate and air quality benefits, California Sycamores support urban biodiversity. They provide habitat and food sources for various bird species, beneficial insects, and small mammals. This biodiversity is crucial for maintaining ecological balance and enhancing the resilience of urban ecosystems.


The California Sycamore is not just a tree; it’s a vital component of both natural and urban landscapes. By understanding and applying these care tips and insights, we can ensure these magnificent trees continue to thrive, enhancing our environment and contributing to biodiversity for generations to come.