When I was walking through Cherry Tree Wood last week I noticed, in amongst the Hornbeam and the Oak, a solitary Sycamore tree. As is usual in these parts, the leaves were covered in the round black scars of Tar Spot fungus, which occurs mostly when the tree is young and shaded by older plants. The fungus makes the leaves look as if a Frost Giant has squeezed each one between an icy finger and thumb. It is almost as if the tree is being punished for its very existence, because the more I read about Sycamore, the more I realise how unpopular it is.
Sycamore is a member of the Maple family, as its leaf shape shows. At the moment, it is classified as a neophyte, which means a plant that was introduced after 1500. However, there is a name for the Sycamore in Scottish Gaelic (‘Fiorr chrann’) which suggests that the tree was present much earlier than that. However long it has been here, it is a prolific self-seeder, and if you want an instant forest in your back garden, there is a good chance that Sycamore will oblige.For me, autumn would not be complete without these little whirligigs spiralling down from the trees like some kind of James Bond flying device. But it’s safe to say that not everyone shares my enthusiasm. Take John Evelyn, seventeenth century writer, for example:
” The Sycamor…is much more in reputation for its shade than it deserves: for the Hony-dew leaves, which fall early …turn to a Mucilage and noxious insects, and putrifie with the first moisture of the season: so as they contaminate and marr our Walks; and are therefore by my consent, to be banish’d from all curious Gardens and Avenues.” (Quotation from Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey).
This ‘mucilage’ is likely to be the main culprit for the problem of ‘leaves on the line’, which slows up trains every autumn. And the ‘Hony-Dew’ is produced by the extraordinary number of aphids who feed on the tree. The combination of the two can drive gardeners to distraction. Take this posting to the RHS website for example:
“It rains leaves and now sap and insects of all kinds emerge from it. The sap is everywhere and makes all the garden furniture sticky. Birds roost in it and we have piles of you know what everywhere. So bad now that my grandson is not allowed to play in the garden as its just a smelly, sticky nightmare!”
Oh dear. I can see why the Sycamore is not everybody’s favourite.
However, it can be a truly magnificent tree, growing up to 35 metres tall and living for 400 years. The Martyrs’ Tree in Tolpuddle, Dorset, is a Sycamore. In the 1830’s the local farm labourers used to meet under its branches, and formed the first agricultural labourer’s union in England, subsequently being transported to Australia for their pains. It is said that George Loveless, their leader, took a leaf from the tree with him, pressed between the pages of his Bible.The insects complained about by the gardener above are, for me, one of the Sycamore’s strong points. Where there are aphids there will be lacewings and ladybirds, blue tits and bats. Richard Mabey points out that the Sycamore has the highest insect productivity by weight of any common tree: 35.8 grams per square metre, compared with 27.76 grams for Oak. This is especially useful in urban areas, where alternative sources of insect food might be hard to come by for airborne feeders such as House Martins and Swifts.
In the spring, the flowers are a good source of nectar and pollen for all manner of pollinating insects.The leaves are also food for a variety of moths. In Wales, the wood of the Sycamore is used to make a Love Spoon, which is normally carved from a single piece of wood by a young man to give to his beloved. This was an indication to the bride-to-be’s father that the suitor was competent at woodworking, and was therefore likely to be a good provider, plus the time and effort involved indicated that the lover was serious, not some Jack-the-Lad. For some people, the Sycamore is a ‘weed’, the only tree, to my knowledge, to be labelled in this way. Its ‘alien’ origins, its profligacy, its ‘slimy’ leaves and its way of attracting insects have led to a very British disdain. Poppycock, I say. We should be proud of this magnificent tree, and grateful for its shade, its generosity, its graceful flowers and its helicopter seeds. We need more sturdy, long-lived trees like the Sycamore. They help to prevent flooding by soaking up excess water. They purify our air and help to reduce the heat of the city. And with their lifespans of hundreds of years, they provide a way of both remembering our personal transcience and linking us to the history of those who went before us.