A record-breaking warm February has its advantages, even if it does leave us a little nervous about what is to come – both in terms of this year’s weather, and in the wider implications of climate change. But while it is here, it makes it easier to dig over the unusually dry soil of the wildflower meadow. This helps to form a seed bed for the annual poppies and cornflowers, removing the more vigorous grasses.
There has also been time for a bit of pruning, and cutting back the last of the dry stems that had been left in place for winter interest. The warm weather is already encouraging new growth, and the woodland garden is full of colour from pulmonaria, primroses, cyclamen and snowdrops.
The corkscrew hazel is doing its thing, with tiny pink female flowers opening in advance of the male catkins starting to shed their pollen, all beautifully decorating the twisted branches. Soon the leaves will return, and it can relax back into being a dark and shapeless shrub, easily overlooked later in the year.
More progress has been made on sorting out the tool store, and putting up hooks to try to provide some structure to the tangle of tools. Meanwhile we celebrate the completion by Nino of the task of putting in a low edging of reclaimed fencing around the borders next to the garden shelter. It just remains for us to replace one of the yew trees that died soon after planting, then we can plant up these borders.
Meanwhile, work on the new steps up to the Bath House continues. They have been designed to follow a curve around the Sycamore tree, as near as possible to the route of the original steps.
This sycamore was in the garden long before we were, and will remain long after we’re gone – it’s an imposing specimen, even if it isn’t considered decorative or even medicinal by most people. [You can learn more about Sycamores below]. Nick has invented a very impressive device that enables him to draw a perfect arc whose radius inconveniently runs through the centre of this large tree. Good progress is being made, one step at a time, with remarkable precision.
Sycamore Acer pseudoplatanus
The Sycamore’s native habitat is a swathe of Central Europe and Western Asia, (eastern and southern France right across to the Ukraine and Turkey). Once thought to have been introduced to Britain by the Romans, other reports suggest it was in the Tudor era, with more planting recorded in the 1700s; and the earliest reports of naturalisation were not until the mid 1800s.
Sycamore must nonetheless be one of the UK’s most well known and widespread naturalised trees. It is described in botanical terms as a ‘coloniser’ or ‘pioneer’, i.e. one of the first to take over open land, fast growing and self-seeding. It prefers moist well drained soil but can cope with heavy clay, medium loam and sandy soils; it isn’t fussy about levels of acidity or alkalinity; it grows well in both woodland and open areas; and can even tolerate salty sea air! You’ll be familiar with the ‘helicopter’ seeds spiralling through the air, and you’ve possibly found one – or several – sprouting a two two-leaved mini-tree on your lawn… This prolific, even aggressive, growth has caused it to be regarded in some areas of the country, and by some gardeners, conservationists and others, as a ‘weed’.
Left to their own devices they can grow to 100ft in height and live to be around 600 years old, although most don’t survive that long naturally in the UK. They are initially dominant, but in the long term – over a couple of hundred years – they are gradually overtaken in number by native trees, and this actually makes them suitable for planting when creating or developing broad-leaved woods.
A member of the Acer family, of which many varieties produce glorious autumn colour, ‘our’ tree is rather humble with inconspicuous flowers and little autumn showiness. The second half of its botanical name means Like a Plane Tree, but it isn’t a member of the Plane family. (Although it’s called by that name in Scotland, just to confuse you. The rest of the UK thinks the name Plane refers to the sturdy city survivor Platanus x hispanica, also known as London Plane because it was so widely planted along the capital’s streets). This somewhat plain, if not plane, tree does get a bad press because it’s so common and taken for granted. But it has many virtues once you get to know it.
Myth and Magic
Because it’s a late introduction to Britain – compared with the millennia that our native trees like Oak and Holly have been around – there isn’t much local myth or legend to recount about Sycamore. Welsh Love-Spoons were usually carved from the wood, and a self-avowed British ‘hedge-witch’ believes it is a tree of prosperity and longevity. Whistles made from twigs, along with branches, are apparently used in old customs in Cornwall.
The most famous sycamore in Britain is probably the one in Tolpuddle, Dorset, in the shadow of which six farm labourers set up a friendly society in 1834 to protest against their ever-reducing wages. Known as the Tolpuddle Martyrs, they were transported to Australia for the obscure crime of ‘swearing an unlawful oath’; but were brought back home after a public outcry against their harsh punishment. A testament to sycamores’ longevity, being probably 200 years old when it sheltered the labourers, this tree is now cared for by the National Trust.
There are plenty of references to Sycamore being sacred and a source of medicine to the native American peoples, but this isn’t of much relevance to us, because the American Sycamore is actually a Plane tree (sorry) and, as we know, our European tree isn’t.
I even found this quote on a website, referring to the American Sycamore: “it is believed it got its name from the flaking nature of its bark making it look ‘sick’ all the time!” I expect (hope) this was facetious…
References to Sycamore in the Bible are also mistaken, since that tree is actually a Sycomore, spelled correctly with o rather than a (Ficus sycomorus), a species of fig cultivated since ancient times.
So if you’re looking for information on our familiar Sycamore, make sure it’s a UK website or check the Latin name…
According to one source quoted in PFAF, the bark is mildly astringent, employed in both skin and eye washes, while the inner bark layer can be used as a wound dressing.
William Cobbett, in his treatise The Woodlands of 1825, wrote: ” Our Sycamore is a Maple… a very hardy thing makes very good fuel… It is mere brushwood; and of no more use as a tree, than the poppies, or wild parsnip, or wild carrot, are as cattle-food. [It] is a weed of the woods, and we burn it, because we know not what else to do with it.” This disparaging comment is a little unkind, as Sycamore trees do have several uses, although it is indeed an excellent fuel for the fire, whether in its natural state or when turned into good quality charcoal.
The wood is hard, heavy, but easy to work and, when carved and polished, is almost silky, with a subtle sheen. It also has a good hard-wearing edge making it as suitable for domestic utensils as for small ornamental pieces.
Sweetener / Flavouring
The sap of sycamore can be tapped for making syrups, cordials, wine or beer.
It’s not a highly decorative tree, and gets too big for most ordinary gardens, but some variegated and colourful varieties have been developed. The RHS describes two that are not only small enough to be thought of as garden specimens, but are also recommended in their list of Plants for Pollinators.
Sycamore’s fast growing character and tolerance of a variety of conditions make it ideal for wind-breaks, even by the sea, and other shelter planting. It self-sows into hedgerows, where it is usually cut back before it can outgrow the rest.
Acknowledgments – thanks to the following for information, and for the dispelling of misinformation!
– http://www.wikipedia.org (including the image of a botanical drawing)