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The Mexican Sycamore – Platanus mexicana

by Keith Brown
August 8, 2010

The Mexican sycamore has been a popular planting choice for about 10 years. Like the moneterey oak, it seems to be emerging as a great tree for the area, but it has yet to stand the test of time.

The Basics

To the untrained eye, a Mexican sycamore looks just like its close relative, the American sycamore. The easiest way to distinguish them is by looking at the foliage. American sycamores are wider at the base of the leaf and generally will have a lobe at the base of the leaf that the Mexican species lacks. Another thing to look at to distinguish them is the tree’s age. Since Mexican sycamores have been popular for only 10 years or so, it is unlikely you will find any old, large specimens.


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Mexican sycamores are fast growing and drought hardy. Maximum height should be around 50′ in our area. And, I’d guess they’ll have a life span of about 60 years. Mexican sycamores are resistant to bacterial leaf scorch, one of the more prominent and damaging diseases to the American sycamore. As a whole, the Mexican sycamore is pretty insect and disease resistant across the board. I would expect Mexican sycamores to be vulnerable to the cottonwood borer beetle just as the American counter-part is. This bug usually gets into older specimens so we’ll just have to wait and see.

There has been suspicion that the Mexican sycamore would not be cold hardy in the Austin area since the weather doesn’t get very cold in its natural distribution area. Last winter (2009-2010) was one the coldest winters we’ve had in a long time. We didn’t have extreme lows or ice build up, but we did have a large number of days below 35 degrees. All of the Mexican sycamores I’ve seen are still looking great. We’ll still have to see how they hold up to our irregular ice storms. But, I’m guessing they’re going to prove to be plenty cold hardy.

Natural Distribution

The Mexican sycamore is found naturally from Guatemala in the southern tip of Mexico up through to the north regions of Mexico. These trees are found in mixed forest galleries, usually along streams and creeks. But, they are known to be hardy in most environments.
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A Little History

There are believed to be two basic sub-genera of sycamore trees. One that spreads from eastern US south into Mexico and another that is found in the pacific northwest and europe. Some genetic researchers in Europe believe that Platanus mexicana (the Mexican sycamore) is the closest descendant to ancestral sycamore precursors. The believe the very first Platanus trees were in Mexico and that all Platanus trees across the globe have some Mexican sycamore in them.

The Mexican sycamore is one the trees on my most watched list. I’m growing to really appreciate them. Hopefully, the coming 20 years will show us that this is a great tree for our landscapes. For now we can only speculate.

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Be sure to post a photo if you want some advice on your tree.

  • Brian Halsell says:

    Would happen to know a nursery that grow Mexican Sycamore?

  • DB says:

    Despite regular watering, the leaves on the Mexican Sycamore I planted this winter are starting to turn brown, and some are dropping. The Monterrey Oaks and Texas Red Oak planted at the same time are doing well. Is there anything I can do other than continuing to water and hope for the best?

    • Forrest Walker says:

      You’ve probably got bacterial leaf scorch. Look it up and compare what you see from your tree and the definition of bacterial leaf scorch. These trees are VERY vulnerable to this disease and it eventually kills them.

  • Kristoffer Rasmussen says:

    We are planting 5 Mexican Sycamores in Central Park of Azle Texas. The trees are 3′ dbh and about 20′ tall. I will post their progress.

  • Michelle says:

    We just got a Mexican sycamore for the front yard. Now I’m a little concerned there won’t be enough room for the roots. I’m told the rule of thumb is that the roots can extend at least as wide as the longest branch and now I’m reading that with this tree that can be 50 feet. Our yard is pretty small. In the spot it was supposed to go, it would have 9 feet on 3 sides and plenty of room on the 4th side. Will that not be enough room? What is the consequence–a buckled driveway? The alternative that might give it some more room is moving a redbud that’s been there 2 years, but I don’t want to risk killing that, and that would also put the sycamore fairly close to our neighbors’ young oak tree. Any thoughts?

  • CW says:

    I just wanted to add that this species survived -10F and -8F lows in my part of Albuquerque, NM in 2011. This is is the last of my plants to leaf out, handles the arid conditions of our desert well and goes dormant prior to our first snows. A great choice for all of us in the SW.

  • Ann says:

    the mexican sycamore in our backyard is in it’s 3rd year and about 18ft tall. Last year the new growth came back only along the main trunk. The top 5ft died off. There is a powdery black mold-looking substance on the trunk of the dead portion of the tree. the new growth has just started and some of the sprouting leaves are turning brown and wilting. We had a late freeze after the new growth had formed which was normal looking until that time. Any advice?

    • Keith Brown says:

      The black mold looking stuff is probably hypoxylon canker which is a sapwood fungal disease that is likely what caused your tree to decline. Can you post pictures?

  • susan says:

    I was almost sure I wanted them but now you have sold me on the Mexican sycamore.
    Where can I buy them in the Galveston area?
    thanks,
    susan

  • Dora Smith says:

    Keith:

    How common are sycamore trees in Austin?

    There is a dying sycamore tree near a bus stop where I often wait, in a North Austin residential neighborhood. Between the thing’s bizarre leaves, and the completely stripped appearance of its bark, I thought it was diseased. I’ve never seen another tree like it. Are there many around?

    What specifically causes them to die? There are other dead trees nearby, and since they are entirely dead I can’t tell what they were.

    Dora

  • Donna Ketchbaw says:

    I have a Mexican Sycamore tree about 1-1/2 yrs. old planted on East side of yard. It appears healthy and is growing, but this month the old and new leaves are turning yellow. I don’t know if I’m watering it too much or not enough? I slow water 45 minutes once a week and the sprinkler system hits it 2 x wk. I live in Fredericksburg, Tx. Please advise.

  • Forrest Walker says:

    For a sobering look at the Mexican Sycamore and it’s “resistance to bacterial leaf scorch”, come over to the Mueller development (the old airport) especially on Scales Street and then please remind me of your proclamation written on this website! Wow! You’ve really stubbed your toe on this tree.

    • Keith Brown says:

      Given the time of year of your post, I’m going to take your diagnosis of bacterial leaf scorch with a grain of salt. BLS typically manifests in late spring and summer and by fall the foliar symptoms are not discernible from any other pest or disease that would cause foliar damage. I drive by this site several times a year specifically to look at the trees. I’ll take special care to look for disease symptoms next spring. Also, keep in mind that those trees are starting to get big and are grown in very tight spaces. Their growing conditions are poor at best. Heat and drought stress (which is mimicked in poor sites even during good rain years) will give you almost the same foliar symptoms as BLS. The Missouri Botanical Garden has some really good info about BLS, however their climate is cooler so when they say late summer defoliation occurs, here in Texas that really happens in late spring or early summer.