Caring for Our Sycamores?


Oct 30, 2018
New Mexico, USA

I'm looking for advice about caring for three trees at our house in the north central Rio Grande valley of New Mexico. While I'm a biologist, I usually work with reptiles and amphibians and know almost nothing about plants!

These three sycamores define our deck & yard area on the south side of our house and provide great shade and nesting sites for hummingbirds during the spring and summer while the patterned trunks provide soothing views from many rooms all year. They were a major attraction to us when we bought the house 17 years ago and remain one of the reasons we're happy living in rural New Mexico. Our house was built in 1984 and I suspect the trees were planted soon thereafter so I estimate they are around 30 - 35 years old. Their combined canopy is about 70' north-south and about 60' east-west. They appear to me to be about 60 - 70' tall.

Google Earth view of our house and the sycamores nestled in the interior corner. Other trees around are mostly cottonwoods, a few piñons, a couple of elms and some fruit trees.

19 Madrone 202008 Dwnld Prcsd.jpg

Wide angle view of the three sycamores, deck and backyard. The lengths of closer branches are distorted by the wide angle lens.

While the trunks and major (scaffold?) branches appear healthy and resist our spring winds better than any other of our trees, distal lateral branches seem to die back most years and spring foliage grows along the main branches from trunk to near tip. We've noticed that new leaf buds often green up, sending out shoots early and then there is usually a freeze, hail storm, high winds or combination of these that causes many of the new leaves to die. Subsequent sprouts seem stunted and the leaves small except for those along the major branches closer to the trunk which come out larger and appear more luxuriant.

Dead secondary branches from last year in the canopy:

Foliage (water sprouts?) along major branches close to the trunk:


1. Are the dead lateral branches avoidable? Would removing the water sprouts (not sure this is correct term) along the scaffold branches early in the season promote more growth and survival of laterals? We often waited until later in the summer to remove the foliage on the scaffold branches simply because we often travel in the spring and early summer. Could the trees be stressed for water? Our area honestly only gets about 7 - 10" of rain annually and most of that in three or four downpours. I think these trees get most of their water from our watering the lawn which extends around 5/8 of the ground surrounding the trees. When it rains the area covered by the deck (the other 3/8ths) gets water through the deck, but otherwise its dry.

2. We wish to remove the water sprouts annually, but sometimes fail. We like looking out across the clean multihued trunks and branches so their removal is aesthetic, but with few lateral branches I recently became worried we might harm the trees by removing that foliage? In general we try to leave the distal third of the foliage on the scaffold branches - is that enough?

3. Any suggestions about when we ought to do pruning? From some recent reading, it seems that earlier might be better to encourage lateral growth (as mentioned above)?

4. We make no effort to augment the soil or add fertilizer to the trees. Should we?

Thanks for any suggestions!

More water wouldn't hurt. It's a wetland tree. My preference would be trapping greywater for it, due to being free and less wasteful. Dunno about the pruning.
Dieback at the tips typically indicates root issues. The adventitious growth from dormant buds near the trunk is indicative of the tree trying to replace the foliage lost at the tips and/or foliage lost from over pruning.
Watering under the decks regularly should help too, maybe even put 6-12" of fresh compost or free wood chips under the decks for extra nutrients too. Anyway, the decks hide a good bit of root area that could be watered. Maybe adjust the nearest sprinklers to 360deg and increase the watering duration or nozzle size to compensate for the larger area covered by those sprinklers.

Trees are known to die when driveways are laid around them. It can be a more or less slow death over 3 years because they can't get much water.
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  • #6
Thanks for the suggestions. We'll work on getting water and mulch under the deck sections and look for signs of Anthracnose next spring. Right now I don't see signs of fungus on the leaves, but I understand it is more likely in the early spring.

Anthracnose is my guess too. That's what my guess for an east coast sycamore would br anyways. Lots of big mature sycamores that have that same look over here. Seemingly very slow to cause major problems
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  • #9
Thanks again for the suggestions. I'll do some research on Anthracnose, treatments and mitigation. Then I'll come back to this thread with a potential plan to see what you all think. At the moment we're slowly removing branches that overhang our garage from two moderately large cottonwoods. So far so good, but the remaining large branch is challenging as there is no rigging point above (we used this branch to rig down the lowers) but it isn't high enough for our undeveloped negative rigging skills. Definitely moving slowly and carefully to protect the flat garage roof.