Contributed by This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., Morris Arboretum Volunteer and Penn State Master Gardener

White-barked trunk and branches of Sycamore tree reaching to the sky behind Hinoki false cypress evergreens in Meadow parking lot

Have you seen the Great White at the Morris Arboretum? You're thinking about “the shark,” right?  Not a bad thought, since it is the most famous. The Arboretum has plenty of natural water, however, the Swan Pond has swans. The meandering Wissahickon creek has small fish. And, the wetland isn't suited for gill-bearing animals. Sorry! There are no sharks at the Arboretum.

Your second guess? A tree? The Great White is a tree! I’m talking about the American planetree or sycamore tree (Platanus occidentalis). At the Arboretum, you’ll find a beautiful grove of younger sycamore trees around the wetland area, on the side parallel to Northwestern Avenue. More mature specimens are located at the far end of the meadow parking area, along the Stenton Avenue fence, behind the large Hinoki falsecypress evergreens.

Sycamore tree with white bark and broadly spreading, zig-zagging upper branches

The sycamore is truly “great”—a large specimen—sometimes reaching 75-100 feet in height with wide spreading branches, and zigzag twigs. It is one of the tallest deciduous, broadleaf trees in the eastern United States, growing best in moist, rich soils on the edges of floodplains, rivers, and streams.

The sycamore looks especially “white” on its upper trunk after dropping its leaves, giving us a clear sight of white to creamy-white colored bark. Further down the tree’s trunk base, the bark is scaly, red to gray-brown, and peels off on the upper trunk to uncover light colors.The Sycamore’s white bark is even more exceptional when seen on a gray or cloudy winter day or when framed by evergreen conifers.     

Later, don’t miss this tree’s summertime feature of dramatic leaves—large (4-9 inches wide) with multiple lobes and toothed margins. In fall, dry roughly one-inch sized fruits (technically, an achene) dangle from long stalks like ornaments.  

On your next visit, look up, scan the treetops, and find the Great White!