Out of the Woods: Celebrating Trees in Public Gardens
The Third New York Botanical Garden Triennial

California Sycamore

Platanus racemosa
The Huntington Library, Art Collections, & Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California

I am a botanical art student and I selected this tree as a part of an assignment for my diploma in botanical illustration through the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Distance Learning Course.  The assignment required selection of a ‘Native Tree’ endemic to where I live in San Diego, California. I chose Platanus racemosa, commonly known as California Sycamore, for the two year research project.  This tree filled me with inspiration because of the rich variety of textured material, brilliant magenta female flowers, colorful puzzle shaped bark, and majestic architecture. There was also a sentimental reason for choosing this particular tree. As a child I rode my bike along a ridge while watching red tailed hawks soar through the canyon below where the birds nested in the massive sycamore tree tops.  This is a cherished childhood memory.   


The project not only included a painting but a body of research incorporating all aspects of the tree’s botany, ecology, habitat with associated plant and animal life, life cycle, pollination, distribution and uses, seasonal changes, bark and leaf details, branching architecture, flower and fruit development.  For the assignment, I collaborated with my art tutors at RBGE, including botanists, herbarium specialists and a scientific illustrator. I made flower dissections and pressed/preserved plant parts for herbarium plates, kept a sketchbook and took hundreds of photographs to record my observations during all four seasons. This painting was the final part of the assignment. 


For my painting, a series of watercolor study sheets of tree parts were completed for practice. I used a silhouette, bark, leaves, dissections, flowers, fruit, seeds, and seasonal drawings to create an informative composition. I made cut-out tracings from the sketchbook and color photocopied my painted plant parts from studies. Moving these various parts around on a sheet while experimenting with several configurations helped in making a final decision for the composition. I used Fabriano Artistico 640gsm old stock and mostly kept to a palette of 3 primary pigments. The challenge was to somehow incorporate a life sized mature leaf into the composition. California sycamore trees grow some of the largest leaves of any native tree in North America. A typical leaf can grow 8-1/2” wide!  This was too large to paint well with time left before my assignment due date. A reduced scale was an option but a simple inked outline of the large leaf seemed a better solution.  The painted flower dissections fit nicely on top thereby giving some added depth and contrast. This project made me think about the glorious perfection of nature.  From one small seed, a tree can grow over 100 feet tall with massive leaves.


California sycamores were an important tree for Native American populations who once inhabited the riparian canyons where the trees grow.  The huge leaves wrapped food for baking, the bark was used to make medicinal tea, the hard wood was used for poles to support living structures, and the massive shade canopies provided relief from the hot sun.


I went to the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Garden for this project because I had attended a fascinating class about trees at the Huntington taught by Jim Folsom, who is the director of Botanical Gardens. The California native sycamores are growing beside an outdoor cafe where Jim presented some of his lecture material, which included information about the sycamores. I have since spent many afternoons at the Huntington wandering the gardens while admiring the tree collections. 

  • © 2016 Deborah Friedman
    California Sycamore
    Platanus racemosa
    Watercolor and ink on paper
    24" x 19"