project reflections #20

Sycamore

In order to escape the violent winds that blew in these parts throughout early January, I took to rambling through the scattered woodlands along the banks of the river Don. Here I found many large sycamore maples or Acer pseudoplatanus  – a magnificent tree that will sometimes grow to a height of over a hundred feet.

I have observed that, in wet ground at the base of these sycamores, the rocking movement of the tree in high winds – transmitted from the upper branches down through the solid trunk – results in oscillatory movements within pools formed from groundwater. This fluid moves up and down with the back and forth movement, resulting in the water rising up and withdrawing – almost like breath – and often expelling the liquified soil to create cavities amongst the roots. These cavities are, I am led to understand, known as oscillants …

Acer pseudoplatanus, the sycamore maple, is a species of maple native to central Europe and southwestern Asia, from France it is naturally distributed eastwards towards the Ukraine, and south to northern Spain, northern Turkey, and the Caucasus. It is not related to other trees called sycamore or plane tree in the Platanus genus. Its apparent similarity to the species of that genus led to its being named pseudoplatanus, using the prefix pseudo- (from the Ancient Greek for “false”). Other common names for the tree include false plane-tree, great maple, Scottish maple, mock-plane, sycamore or Celtic maple.

It is a large deciduous tree that reaches 20–35 m tall at maturity, with a broad, domed crown. On young trees, the bark is smooth and grey but becomes rougher with age and breaks up in scales, exposing the pale-brown-to-pinkish inner bark. The leaves are opposite, large, 10–25 cm long and broad with a 5–15 cm petiole, with a leathery texture, palmately veined with thick veins protruding on the underside surface, with five lobes with toothed edges, and dark green in colour with a whitish underside. The leaves are often marked with black spots or patches which are caused by the fungus Rhytisma acerinum. The monoecious yellow-green flowers are produced in spring on 10–20 cm pendulous racemes, with 20–50 flowers on each stalk. The 5–10 mm diameter seeds are paired in samaras, each seed with a 20–40 mm long wing to catch the wind and rotate when they fall; this helps them to spread further from the parent tree. The seeds are mature in autumn about 6 months after pollination.

The name “sycamore” originally belongs to the fig species Ficus sycomorus, which is native to southwest Asia (this is the sycamore or sycomore referred to in the Bible). The name was later applied to this species by reason of the superficial similarity in leaf shape.

The sycamore is cultivated and widely naturalised north of its native range in northern Europe, and it now occurs throughout the British Isles, having been introduced in the 17th century. It is considered to be an environmental weed in environmentally sensitive locations.

The wood is a medium weight hardwood, weighing 630 kg per cubic metre. It is traditionally used in making the backs, necks and scrolls of violins. The flowers produce abundant nectar, which makes a fragrant, delicately flavoured and pale-coloured honey.

Paul Evans, 8 January 2012

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