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A giant that goes its own way

Slanted, twisted and mottled, the Western sycamore is a stately oddity -- and a habitat for nesting creatures of all kinds. For its human admirers, the native signals nature's cycle with grace and beauty.

October 05, 2006|Lili Singer | Special to The Times

A few times each autumn, Elizabeth Schwartz gathers the fallen foliage from her neighbor's Western sycamore in West L.A. and remembers its seasonal gifts: the joy of stomping on huge palmate leaves, the autumnal crunch that fills her ears and the tree's scent -- an earthy fragrance that she calls "deciduous."

To Schwartz, who teaches a UCLA Extension course on gardening with California native plants, the Western sycamore does more than provide leaves for compost. It serves as a beacon of the season.

"I'm an Easterner," she says. "It's such a pleasure having this tree nearby."

The Western sycamore -- also called the California sycamore and known botanically as Platanus racemosa -- is amazingly common in wild and urban areas of Central and Southern California, where it's usually the tallest tree in sight. It provides shade, supports wildlife and grows well with other natives or in a lawn.

The late plants man Philip Chandler of Santa Monica called the Western sycamore "God's gift to the landscape designer."

Spherical tan fruit dangles from zigzag stems in summer and autumn. Leaves turn dusty chartreuse, then a rusty hue, before dropping for winter. Come spring, they appear again, pale green and furry-backed. The mottled trunk and gnarled limbs glow like burnished silver in the moonlight.

"It's just beautiful with architecture," says Pacific Palisades garden designer Stephanie Blanc. "Though it's a woodland tree, you can throw it up against a stark house, and it would sing there too."

This species is also fast-growing and easy to transplant, even when large -- a good choice for an "instant big tree," she says.

Blanc recommends starting with single-trunk P. racemosa -- one gorgeous upright "leader" to a pot -- as opposed to multi-trunk specimens that, she says, may actually be two or more trees lodged in the same container. "The trunks grow into each other and fight for dominance. Only one survives, and what's left looks awful."

Don't plant trunks on a slant, a popular practice of gardeners trying to force what often happens naturally, she says. Let trees take on their own rakish tilt. Provide good drainage, regular water and plenty of space and you'll have what certified arborist Craig Crotty of Arbor Culture in Verdugo City calls Southern California's best native tree.

"It's a beautiful, beautiful tree -- if in the right place, where it can grow off sideways and not really care," says Crotty, citing a picturesque stand of old giants growing streamside in Glendale's Verdugo Park.

In terms of structure, he says, the Western sycamore tends to break less, stand up to wind better and drop fewer branches than other trees.

Though removing deadwood is never a bad idea, grooming a 75-foot-tall tree can be a challenge. But thanks to sycamore anthracnose, a fungal disease also known as sycamore blight, the tree is virtually self-cleaning, sloughing off twigs throughout fall and winter. The disease is worse during wet springs and can be disconcerting.

"People freak when new leaves curl up, dry out and fall off," Crotty says.

New foliage appears quickly and trees rarely suffer, however, and fallen twigs make great kindling.

The traditional treatment for sycamore blight, copper sulfate spray (or Bordeaux powder) is impractical and unnecessary, experts say. In fact, the disease is responsible for some of the tree's defining characteristics, including the twisted branching, a result of new growth dying back.

Infections also create wood cavities that provide homes for nesting animals. Eagles and hawks rest on high, scouting for smaller birds and rodents. Goldfinches dive for fluff-tailed sycamore seed. Hummingbirds line their nests with twigs and pieces of leaves.

The tree is a veritable community of wildlife. Lizards and mice find cover and sustenance in the leaf duff. Many beneficial bugs prey on the Western sycamore lace bug. The Western sycamore borer -- a clearwing moth whose larvae tunnel through bark and phloem but don't kill the tree -- is a source of food to woodpeckers and songbirds.

The caterpillars of the Western tiger swallowtail and other butterflies and moths dine on the tree's leaves. Even mistletoe, a parasitic plant that clusters in high branches, plays a role in this habitat. Its stems nourish the larvae of the great purple hairstreak butterfly, and birds eat the berries.

The message to gardeners: Western sycamores are durable and can live hundreds of years. Tolerate some damage, and let the tree manage itself.

Oddly, the greatest threat to P. racemosa is the widely planted Planatus x acerifolia, the London plane tree. Stick-straight and disease-resistant, this cultivar hybridizes with the Western sycamore, replacing the native species.

"The development of the plane tree family took 200 million years," says Kristina Schierenbeck, a botany professor and herbarium director at Cal State Chico. "In 300 years, we've reversed the evolution."

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