Quick facts

Common name: sycamore

Scientific name: Acer pseudoplatanus

Family: Sapindaceae

Origin: non-native

These broadleaf trees can grow to 35m and live for 400 years. The bark is dark pink-grey, and smooth when young, but becomes cracked and develops small plates with age. Twigs are pink-brown and hairless.

Look out for: leaf veins which are hairy on the underside.

Identified in winter by: twigs which are pink-brown and have no hairs.

What does sycamore look like?

Sycamore leaf underside close up

Credit: Anna Badley / WTML

Leaves

Palmate leaves measure 7–16cm and have five lobes. Leaf stalks of younger trees are characteristically red.

Sycamore flowers and leaves

Credit: Martin Fowler / Alamy Stock Photo

Flowers

Small, green-yellow and hang in spikes, or 'racemes'.

Sycamore seeds against a black background

Credit: Sylvain Cordier / naturepl.com

Fruits

After pollination by wind and insects, female flowers develop into distinctive winged fruits known as samaras.

Not to be confused with:

Field maple (Acer campestre) and Norway maple (Acer platanoides). V-shaped seeds tell sycamore apart – the angle of the seeds is narrower than the others.

Child and parent looking at autumn leaves with magnifying glass

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Where to find sycamore

Sycamore is native to central, eastern and southern Europe. It is thought to have been introduced to the UK by the Romans. However, other reports suggest it was introduced to the UK in the Tudor era around the 1500s. More widespread planting occurred in the 1700s and the earliest reports of the species naturalising in the UK date from the mid-1800s.

The seed is extremely fertile, so sycamore has spread quickly across the UK and colonised many woodlands to the detriment of native species.

Value to wildlife

Sycamore is attractive to aphids and therefore a variety of their predators, such as ladybirds, hoverflies and birds. The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of a number of moths, including the sycamore moth, plumed prominent and maple prominent. The flowers provide a good source of pollen and nectar for bees and other insects, and the seeds are eaten by birds and small mammals.

Mythology and symbolism

In Wales, sycamore trees were used in the traditional craft of making 'love spoons', decoratively carved wooden spoons given as a romantic gesture. In some parts of the UK, the winged seeds are known as 'helicopters' and used in flying competitions and model-making by children.

Uses of sycamore

Sycamore timber is hard and strong, pale cream and with a fine grain, and is excellent for carving. It is used to make furniture and kitchenware, such as ladles and wooden spoons as the wood does not taint or stain the food.

They are planted in parks and large gardens. Mature trees are extremely tolerant of wind, so are often planted in coastal and exposed areas as a wind break. They are also tolerant of pollution and are therefore ideal street trees.

Threats and conservation

Sycamore is susceptible to sooty bark, which can lead to wilting of the crown and death of the tree, as well as a variety of other fungal diseases. It may also be affected by horse chestnut scale insect, which appears as fluffy white spots on the trunk and branches during the summer.