Saturday, May 19, 2007

Sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus

I am an amateur seeking to identify everything living in my garden.

Saplings of Sycamore trees (Acer pseudoplatanus) (see photo 1 - click to enlarge) spring up regularly in my garden. Examples can currently be found at (0.9,1.3), (1.8,2.0) - see here - and at a few other locations in my garden. I confess to hacking back these invasive and fast growing visitors. They are remarkably resilient plants however, and will come back time and again even when chopped right back to ground level. Apparantly the hardiness of sycamores, which includes a tolerance for salt, makes them a useful option for planting in situations where few other trees will grow - for example on the salt-sprayed verges of motorways ('highways' to those of you visiting from the States).

Sycamores are members of the maple family. A fact that, once known and considering the shape of the leaves, seems obvious, though I confess initially came as a surprise to me as I automatically associate maples with maple syrup, an exotic foreign substance to a born-and-bred Englishman such as myself!

The leaves of maples and sycamores are so distinctive that you are unlikely ever to struggle to identify one, but (as I learn from my copy of the Collins Tree Guide by Johson and More) if ever you are in doubt it is useful to know that relatively few types of tree have opposite leaves (leaves that sprout symmetrically from a point on the stem - see those in the centre of photo 1), and of those that do (ash, eucalyptus etc.) none can be confused with maples.

Though widespread and common, sycamores are not indigenous to Britain, their origin being high ground in Southern Europe. It seems they arrived some time between the Roman occupation and the 16th century.

Although it does not strictly relate to my garden, from the above book I also learn that there are a number of sycamore clones, including a lovely variegated variety that goes by the delightful name Simon-Louis Freres and which, by happy chance, I came upon on a walk recently, hidden away off a quiet country lane near the Oxfordshire village of Cuddesdon.

From a search of the Internet I learn that the word sycamore derives from a confusion that sycamores bear some relation to the fig tree Ficus sycomorus (they don't). Also that the Latin pseudoplatanus, literally false plane is a reference to the 'Platanus' genus of (eleven species of) trees which, although it contains the so-called Arizona Sycamore, is distinct from the acer genus that contains my sycamore. The sycamore is sometimes alternatively called the Scots Plane. Finally, that acer is from the Latin sharp. Here I find some disagreement between sites with some claiming this is a reference to the sharply pointed leaf of the sycamore (see photo 2), and others that it is a reference to the fact that sycamore wood makes good (i.e. sharp) spears! I don't know which is correct but find the latter much more appealing and was delighted to come across this article from the annals of British Archaeology which tells you how to make your very own sycamore spear, in imitatation of the 400,000 year old 'Clacton' spear (though this was in yew - though of course (!), you knew that already).

Finally I am sure you are all desperate to know what is going to happen to the sycamore in photo 1. Well, firstly I am going to let it grow a little while longer. Then, when I find a quiet moment, I am going to turn it into Oxfordshire's very own Clacton spear, hopefully to be re-discovered by an archaeologist 400,000 years from now!

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