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Plant of the Week

September 17, 1988|JUDITH SIMS

Platanus racemosa

California sycamore

Large deciduous tree with maple-like leaves and brown seed clusters.

There are very few large trees native to Southern California; the climate doesn't encourage them. A notable exception is the California sycamore, native to the canyons, which can loom as high as 100 feet.

That height, however, is not the only feature that distinguishes the California sycamore: The trees grow out as much as up, with secondary trunks often horizontal, even touching the ground, and many trees are multi-trunked, a small grove from one root. Whole branches can be contorted and twisted into wonderfully unexpected shapes and directions. A less dramatic plus: The clusters of seed pods are useful in making dried wreaths and other arrangements.

California sycamore leaves turn dull brown in late summer and remain on the tree until new leaves start to form. Some trees suffer from anthracnose, a fungus that causes the leaves to turn splotchy and drop off sooner, and also kills small branches. Although anthracnose rarely is fatal, it should be kept under control by pruning off infected twigs, keeping the ground under the tree clean of debris, and, if necessary, spraying with Bordeaux mixture or lime sulfur liquid.

Because of the sycamore's size, it isn't a good choice for a small yard, and its eccentric growth habit rules out use as a street tree. (Its upright cousin, Platanus acerifolia or London plane tree, is perfectly suited to streets.) In a large Southern California garden, however, there can be no better choice. It doesn't need much water once established; its trunk is beautifully mottled gray and reddish brown, and those horizontal limbs are the perfect playground for adventurous young climbers. Also, California sycamores have an important advantage for homeowners installing a new garden: They can be transplanted when very large, from 48- or even 60-inch boxes. These are expensive and require the use of a crane for installation, but they offer instant gratification.

California sycamores have been extensively planted along highways and in parks; some fine examples can be seen along the Pasadena Freeway and in UCLA's Dickson Plaza.

Although not every nursery will stock Platanus racemosa , most retailers easily can order trees from wholesalers for their customers. When buying or ordering, choose a plant that already has displayed horizontal or multi-trunk tendencies.

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