Dear Readers, since the lockdown I feel as if my focus has been tending towards the wonder of the common and the unremarked. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if I have ever truly ‘seen’ any of these plants or animals at all. Take this sycamore sapling for example, which had plonked itself in the stream in Coldfall Wood, not very far away from its parents. It looks so exotic at the moment that I honestly thought it was an Australian kangaroo paw plant, or maybe some peculiar spider lily, but no. It’s just a little sycamore, gently opening its leaves like so many hands unclasping and waiting to be held.
Tucked in among the hornbeam leaves, with their origami-precise veins, this sycamore is in its element – they love damp, shady places. There are some wonderful examples along the edge of the cemetery by Muswell Hill Playing Fields, and they are full of catkins. I had never noticed them until today – by the time sycamore comes into my consciousness the leaves are inevitably marked with the tar spot fungus that is probably the best way to identify them.
But look how pretty they are at this time of year! The sycamore has a most complicated sex life, with both female flowers (shown here) and male flowers, which are smaller. On any given tree, either the female or the male flowers will open first, so that the plant avoids pollinating itself. Furthermore, a tree might start with female flowers in one year, and start with male flowers in another year. To add to the complication, the change from one sex to another may take place in different areas of the crown at different times.
The female flowers produce lots of green-grey pollen and profuse, sweet nectar, which is attractive to pollinators, and is used by honeybees to make sycamore honey.
Sycamore is such a familiar sight that it’s easy to forget that it was introduced to Britain as recently as the sixteenth century from mainland Europe, probably as a timber tree. Their samaras (those winged ‘helicopter’ seeds that we loved so much as children) seem to germinate at the drop of a hat, and so sycamore has a reputation as a weed tree. Furthermore, although it is a woodland species it has a high tolerance for pretty much everything: it laughs at wind and exposure, and thumbs its nose at pollution. Indeed, it is so hardy that it is pretty much the only wild tree of any size on the Shetland Islands. It supports a pretty good population of insect species considering that it hasn’t been here for that long: 58 species of moth, 16 species of beetle and 25 bugs, which is less than the alder but, surprisingly, more than the ash (according to ‘Alien Plants’ in the New Naturalist series by Clive Stace and Michael Crawley). Furthermore, aphids love it, and hence at the moment the branches are full of blue tits plucking the greenfly and looking for caterpillars.
It’s also easy to forget that sycamore is actually a member of the maple family, and apparently it is possible to tap the bark to obtain the sap, which resembles my favourite sweetener, maple syrup. This seems to me to be a major reason for growing it, but I do note that in Scotland it was a popular tree for hangings, because the lower branches rarely broke, so maybe it isn’t as sweet as all that. Like all trees, your average full-grown sycamore has ‘seen’ a whole lot of things in its life. I wonder what the ones in the cemetery are making of the strange current season? We will never know.