Tree Questions

Are Sycamore Trees Messy?

I’ve always been a sucker for trees, so when we bought our current house I couldn’t have been happier with the massive sycamore sitting at the end of our driveway. Years later, I’ve come to admire that tree just a little less.

Are sycamore trees messy? With bark that continuously sheds throughout the growing season and leaves that slowly drop throughout the coldest winter months, the American sycamore tree is quite messy. Homeowners looking for a low maintenance tree should steer clear.

So, let’s dive in: in this post I’m going to outline all the ways that the American sycamore tree, while beautiful and elegant in its own right, has got to be one of the messiest trees around.

Sycamore Trees: One of the Messiest Out There

From the shedding bark to the falling twigs to the leaves that hang on for dear life, the sycamore tree really likes to keep it messy.

Their Bark Sheds Continuously Throughout the Growing Season

Before I get into the part of this rant, I mean post, where I share my experience with the bark of sycamore trees: I do have to confess an admiration for how the bark looks. There’s no way around it: I think this bark looks downright cool.

Featuring a patchwork of grays that range from nearly white to a relatively dark gray, the bark of sycamore trees has an entirely unique appearance that almost looks like a type of camouflage.

But here’s the kicker: this patchwork of bark is made of individual pieces, and as the sycamore grows during the warmer months it will continuously shed pieces of bark.

Also, this shedding doesn’t solely occur near the base of the tree. Much shedding occurs on the upper branches, so we routinely have bark that lands up to 30 feet away from the tree trunk. The bark also more or less sheds continuously, so you can expect a steady stream of pieces of bark to be shedding from a mature sycamore tree.

One last complaint about the shed bark of sycamore trees before moving on: when it sheds it comes off in a rather thin layer that is somewhat fragile. This means that it tends to break into pieces if you aren’t delicate when picking it up.

Formation of Branches Allows for Many Small Twigs to Drop

While I think the branches of sycamore trees have a unique and neat appearance, the truth is that their unique formation tends to produce a lot of small twigs. You can see it in the picture below, where this branch has a bunch of small twigs all coming out of the same spot:

This branch recently fell in a storm and was living, but not all of the small twigs shown are living. Some were living but others were very brittle and appear to be past year’s growth.

This is where we get to the second most messy aspect of a sycamore tree: you can expect many of those small twigs to shed throughout the year. They’re easy enough to cleanup, but just be aware that you should expect a mature sycamore to provide you a consistent supply of small twigs, whether you like it or not.

The last point of mine is more of a minor gripe: larger sycamore tree branches that are knocked down are a good deal of work to cleanup. Now, if you have city services that offer pickup of large branches and other woody material: go ahead and just let them take care of that.

On the other hand, I’m stubborn and love free firewood so I’m comfortable making the extra effort here.

Their Large Leaves Drop Slowly Throughout Winter, Not Fall

As much as the constant dropping of small twigs and bark throughout the growing season bothers me, the real kicker is when sycamore trees refuse to drop their leaves until the coldest months arrive.

The timing might vary depending on where you live, but for our home situated in the Chicagoland area, our sycamore tree doesn’t start to shed its leaves at least until December.

Then when the leaves do start to drop, they don’t happen to all drop quickly like many other trees. Instead, the leaves of sycamore trees tend to drop over several months, and may drop their leaves well into February.

Small Seed Pods Do Shed, Though Less Prominent

The last thing to keep in mind is that sycamore trees have the ability to produce small, round seed pods. While I haven’t seen many produced by our sycamore tree, it’s possible that other trees produce more.

These seed pods are tough and are a good bit painful if you step on them, so I’d recommend that you avoid going barefoot while walking under a sycamore tree.

How to Clean Up After Your Sycamore Effectively

Here’s the deal: as much as I’ve spent this post listing my complaints about the sycamore tree, maintenance really isn’t too much work if you don’t let it pile up. I’ve found that the mess is pretty manageable if I make the effort to pick up for a bit about every other week.

The other thing to note is that it’s always good to do a quick cleanup after a storm comes through or you have a really windy day. Storms will always bring down a good amount of bark and small twigs.

With all that said, there is one saving grace in my book for the messy sycamore tree: the shed twigs and bark make for a near endless supply of great kindling. We have a fire pit in the backyard and love a good campfire, so I’ve come to appreciate the shed material as an opportunity to stock up on kindling.

One last tip for those with a mature sycamore tree on their lot: be sure not to put away your rake once all the other trees have shed their leaves in November. Nobody likes raking and dealing with leaf bags when it’s 10 degrees out, so be on the lookout for warmer days in winter as a chance to rake some leaves.

Thoughts on Siting Sycamore Trees on a Suburban Lot

If you’re considering planting a sycamore on your suburban lot, that’s great! Despite all my ranting I do think these are some pretty neat trees, there are just a few things you should keep in mind when choosing a site for your new sycamore.

First things first, if you enjoy having neatly manicured landscaping I would just avoid planting a sycamore tree entirely. The extra mess produced by a sycamore will only serve to annoy you and there are many other suitable trees.

For those of us with lower expectations for our lawns: try to avoid placing a sycamore tree near the sidewalk or a driveway. The mess from the twigs and bark will consistently need cleaning up if you’re trying to keep a clean appearance for your neighbors. I would also avoid placing sycamores near your house, as I can only assume that the shed material would clog gutters and create more work.

Last but not least: you might want to avoid using a colored mulch near your sycamore tree. The fallen twigs and bark will likely be stark in appearance compared to your colored mulch, you’ll need to consistently pick up the material if you want a manicured appearance. Arborist chips are a good alternative mulch, as the fallen twigs and bark blend in much better and you won’t have to clean your garden beds as much.

Concluding Thoughts

For as much as I may have complained and ranted about our sycamore tree, I do have to say that I appreciate its beauty. They really are unique looking trees, they just happen to be a bit messy.

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By Drew Meulemans

I've long admired forests and devote much energy to learning about them and exploring. I enjoy sharing what I learn and wish to inspire others to do the same.