Sheffield riverscape (1)

I walked with Daisy along the River Don from the Wardsend cemetery to Neepsend. At Wardsend, we started off a little way down the railway lines that run stark and clean through the undulating and overgrown cemetery, then veered off to follow the river itself, along the newly surfaced track that cuts through the vast mounds of debris – spolia from demolished works? – that loom either side. The electricity pylons hummed and crackled overhead and the thunderous engines of quad bikes rumbled and reverberated in an undefinable distance.

Everywhere we walk, waste. And amidst the waste, lilac and jack-in-the-hedge. The river bank is strewn with tyres and bottles and fast food wrappers, mattresses and plastic chairs, podgy black bin bags. A sign screwed to one of the metal kissing gates put there to stop the quad bikes : fly tippers – we are watching you.

At Wardsend, on the hill amidst the silver birch, there has been a fire. Graves squat in scorched earth, black tipped tendrils clasping shards of stone, displacing fragments of Victorian ironwork.

The Hillsborough playing fields are to our right. A man in a vermilion jersey sparks across the pitch. A sheep’s skull – or perhaps it is just a carrier bag – is revealed, briefly, as the river washes across it. Bottle-green, muddy mallards drift.

Neepsend. Eviscerated drag cars and deserted roads, leading to an empty, elevated horizon.

Inflecting time’s arrow, or the art of exploring impossibilities

Inflecting time’s arrow, or the art of exploring impossibilities

‘The city is an oeuvre, closer to a work of art than a simple material product’ (Henri Lefebvre, The Right to the City, 1968).

When the French philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefebvre called for ‘the right to the city’ in his 1968 book, Le Droit à la ville, he was not making the case for the redistribution of urban property. Instead, he was advocating the democratic right of the people to participate in and to appropriate the city as oeuvre (artwork). By this he meant that the ideal city, for him, would be one that is worked perpetually by its inhabitants and that this process of inhabiting (in other words making and re-making the city) would take priority over consuming ready-made cityscapes (or habitats). The city he evokes (and which he describes as the properly urban) is a working site, characterized by disequilibrium, unpredictability, desire and encounter, a place that survives ‘in the fissures of planned and programmed order’ (Lefebvre, 1996: p. 129). It is a space of untold possibilities, in which the meaning of what is and what can be remains (perpetually) at stake. By contrast, capitalist logic forecloses the possibility of making new meanings in and of the city. It transforms the use value of the city into exchange value, concealing the emancipatory plasticity of the site with the hard signs and values of profit. In the capitalist city, the inhabitant, the user of the city, is instead conceived as a consumer of signs, a client to be kept happy. The city as a place of consumption, Lefebvre reminds us, goes hand in hand with this idea of the consumption of place.

Fredric Jameson famously wrote that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to envisage the end of capitalism. Lefebvre applies similar thinking to the capitalist city, noting that we often perceive it as being ‘as full as an egg or as an entirely written page’ (Lefebvre, 1996: p. 104), a physical and ideological space in which there is little or no opportunity for us to intervene or make significant change. Certainly, it seems that all too often the only ‘wiggle room’ we’re able to imagine for ourselves remains contained within dominant ideological structures.

For example, in Britain, it seems that we find it very difficult to imagine the city centre as anything other than ‘the high street’. It’s true that shops have, historically, influenced the morphological structure of our city centres. Their streets and architecture were constructed for the purpose of trade and a whole social structure grew up around the actions of browsing, buying, conversing and taking refreshment between purchases. Still today, street furniture and the layout of pedestrianized areas point to shopping as a key factor in city centre design and planning. However, the economic crisis, the rise of online shopping and other factors including the number of available car parking places and the proliferation of out-of-town malls have together produced a sharp downturn in the numbers of consumers who choose to shop on the high street. Since 2007, nearly 300 major UK retailers have gone under (affecting almost 2500 stores) and countless small businesses have closed their doors. Between 2009-2011, city centre vacancy rates doubled. What we’ve inherited, then, on the high street is a form that is increasingly without function, and yet literally set in stone.

There’s a left-right consensus in government that as much as possible must be done to keep city centre shops open. Money has been made available through some high-profile schemes to ‘re-think the high street’ and despite the introduction in 2014 of a new PDR (permitted development right) it still remains difficult to convert retail properties into residential accommodation, the thinking being that the latter doesn’t create long-term jobs and salaries. Mary Portas, who headed up a review commissioned by government in 2011, described its aims thus: ‘once we invest in and create social capital in the heart of our communities, the economic capital will follow’. In other words (and this is underscored by the first of the review’s five headline recommendations – that town centres should be ‘run like businesses’), the point for her is that the means of producing capital might need to change, but capital as an end remains unchanged. It seems also that even many ‘grassroots’ initiatives to re-think and re-make our city centres also remain grounded in doing retail, even if they are claim to be doing retail differently. The glut of ‘alternative’ pop-up shops, window displays by local artists and other ‘meanwhile’ solutions, all of which shore up the premise that this is but an economic hiatus, neither challenge the neoliberal status quo or respond usefully and creatively to the irrefutable downturn in city centre shopping. Instead, they paper over the cracks of a socio-economic model that requires not so much an aesthetic sticking plaster as a radical structural overhaul. The ideology of consumption – that is, the idea of the city centre as a space to be consumed and a space in which to consume – remains intact.

So what should we make of Lefebvre’s call for the city to be inhabited as oeuvre? As artwork? In fact, the connection between art and the modern capitalist city is a difficult and ambivalent one. In the nineteenth century, while the Impressionists embarked on their radical attempt to capture something of the fleeting, rapidly changing quality of industrialising cities such as Paris and London, Baron Haussmann – the self-proclaimed ‘demolition artist’ responsible for dramatically re-making the urban fabric of the French capital – commissioned photographers to make propagandistic ‘before and after’ images that would be used to persuade the people of Paris of the social usefulness of an initiative born largely, in fact, of military, political and financial interests. Similarly today, art is harnessed to the needs of the regenerating, branded city. Artists, when they are not asked to work for free, are offered financial incentives to package and sell their practice as product to the public and private corporations who manage our cityscapes. ‘Percentage for art’ schemes variously request or require of developers of residential, commercial and public space a small percentage of their overall budget for the purposes of commissioning art that will be publicly sited. This is perceived as ‘adding value’ to regeneration and ‘enriching’ urban space. Artists are also employed to work with communities whose landscapes are being transformed or ‘regenerated’, with a view to encouraging the latter’s ‘buy-in’ to the project and reinforcing the illusion that they have some creative say in what is happening. Beyond these funded opportunities, there are also, of course, invitations to sell artworks in pop-up shops and galleries, or make street art, or window displays in the now defunct retail spaces described just a moment ago… And then, at another level again, there’s the infamous ‘Bilbao effect’. Every city worth its salt wants a contemporary art space (with gift shop attached) that draws in the tourists, drives the economy, draws inward investment and renews the urban fabric, though since the crisis of 2008 art’s magical effects can of course no longer be guaranteed…

Writing in the middle of the last century, Lefebvre was alert to the dangers of art’s problematic complicity in the top-down meaning making of the capitalist city, yet also keenly aware of its critical and creative potential. He writes:

To put art at the service of the urban does not mean to prettify urban space with works of art. This parody of the possible is a caricature. Rather, [we argue] that time-spaces become works of art and that former art reconsiders itself as source and model of appropriation of space and time. (Lefebvre, 1996: p. 173)

Through this prism, art is reconceived as ‘a capacity to transform reality, to appropriate at the highest level the facts of the “lived”, of time, space, the body and desire’ (Lefebvre, 1996: p. 164). The space-time of the city, rather than being endured or accepted with passive resignation (ibid, pp. 156-157), becomes the very material from which the properly urban might be sculpted. In other words, the city itself should be understood as a plastic object, the consistency, form and texture of which are at one level determined by what has been, yet the stakes and future of which remain open to (re)appropriation by its inhabitants. It is in this sense, and in contrast to the ‘full egg’ model of the capitalist city, that Lefebvre perceives a gap between the fact of the city and its practice. To inhabit the city is, for Lefebvre, synonymous with critical art practice; it involves interrogating, and more specifically denaturalising, what is and, consequently, what it seems must follow, by exposing their radical contingency. To inhabit the city, in other words, is to imagine that all this might be otherwise.

The works made in the context of the plastiCities project share a common interest in reconfiguring the fact of the city, its objects, sounds and signs. For example, in Is this not a wasteland? Richard Ward destabilises dominant urban taxonomies and re-opens the hermeneutic complexity of ‘wasteland’, which is in fact a discursive ideological production, to other configurations of interpretation and intervention. The compositions sculpted from ordinary and everyday sounds found on and near the Furnace Park site can be heard through listening posts engineered by Thom Wilson, Sam Varcoe and Ben Wadsworth. With ingenuity and craftsmanship they extracted empty paint tins from the cycle of consumption and obsolescence to re-make them as conductors of sound. Similarly, David McLeavy’s stark images decontextualize objects found at Furnace Park. These empty cans of spray paint, rusting padlocks and photocells, along with the lumps of industrial stuff that we simply cannot identify, are a reflection on the processes of production, releasing the labour and forces embedded in the commodity of the ‘steel city’. An archive of the obsolete, McLeavy makes no recommendation as to what use this archive might be put, other than inviting us to contemplate its possibilities.

Lefebvre, as we have seen, describes a gap between the fact of the city and its practice, between what the city is and what we make of it (literally and conceptually). This gap, for him, is the space of politics, agency and engagement; it is the space in which we might deflect time’s arrow, interrupting the ‘natural progress’ of capitalism’s logic and recalibrating what we are made to understand is possible and impossible. This deflection, or interruption, is how we have interpreted the political valence of détournement and derive. The event of art institutes a space for thought, a critical distance from what is, and – very simply – creates the conditions for exploring impossibilities.

‘Art is not, in the first instance, political because of the messages and sentiments it conveys concerning the state of the world. Neither is it political because of the manner in which it might choose to represent society’s structures, or social groups, their conflicts or identities. It is political because of the very distance it takes with respect to these functions, because of the type of space and time that it institutes, and the manner in which it frames this time, peoples this space’. (Deranty, 2014: p. 23).

Amanda Crawley Jackson & Martin Elms, 2015.

An essay written to accompany our work being shown in The Art of Wandering exhibition at 35 Chapel Walk gallery, July-August 2015.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Deranty, Jean-Philippe, Jacques Rancière: Key Concepts (London: Routledge, 2014).

Lefebvre, Henri, Writings on Cities, translated and edited by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell, 1996).

Rancière, Jacques, The Emancipated Spectator, translated by Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2009).

Furnace Park goes live

We’re pleased to announce that Furnace Park has been granted planning permission (see all the related documents here) and we now have the keys to the site. This means the project is finally going live and we can start to programme our talks, exhibitions and other events we’ve planned for the course of the summer and autumn this year.

Visit the Furnace Park website for more information about the projects that are taking place on the site and feel free to email Dr Amanda Crawley Jackson (a.j.jackson@sheffield.ac.uk) for more information.

The Furnace Park project is generously supported by Roxspur Measurement and Control Ltd., DLA Piper (Sheffield), Arts Enterprise and the University of Sheffield. Partners include SKINN, plastiCities and Engineers Without Borders.

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All photographs by Amanda Crawley Jackson, 2013.

project reflections #28

Upperthorpe Botanicus

Poor flowers in the flower beds of manicured gardens.

They look like they’re afraid of the police …

‘Alberto Caeiro’  from The Keeper of Sheep XXXIII

Feeling conscious of the absence of an introduction, I thought that it might be worthwhile to draft a short conclusion to the project reflections that I have written about the botany of the Upperthorpe, Netherthorpe, Shalesmoor, Neepsend and Wardsend edgelands (project reflections 1, 3, 4, 5, 14, 19, 20, 22, 24, 26 and 27 respectively).   

The aim, in principle, was to create a tentative psycho-botany of the various weeds and invasive plants that thrive on “disturbed ground” around the edges of habitation; to not only describe these ‘flowers that grow in the wrong places’ in botanical terms but to examine – at least in brief – their cultural significance.

Also, last weekend, whilst in conversation with a botanist friend, I was reminded of the fragile precariousness of this urban weed-ecology. Essentially most of these transitional or pioneering plants (poppies, buddleja, Rosebay willowherb etc.) will propagate only in areas of vegetation clearance; in the course of natural habitat development they will soon be deprived of light by forest canopies and, given time, will simply cease to exist. It is a transitory, human-determined and human-dependent flora that has been created in these areas.

In terms of the way that we have become accustomed to contemplating nature, I’m therefore left with somewhat conflicted feelings – where’s the (cleansing) spiritual connection? This is – it would seem – a somewhat muddied, muddled, mitigated nature; perhaps a somewhat less than fully ‘natural’ nature – in comparison to what we might hope to see in a timeless, ‘pristine’ ecology – perhaps in Alaska, for example …

In terms of structuring the texts, I quite enjoyed the caprice of writing the introductory (in bold) paragraphs in the ‘voice’ of an nineteenth century naturalist – a voice that I hoped would contrast with the ‘thick description’  or fact-heavy content of the remainder (culled heavily from Wikipedia but also informed by other texts including The Unofficial Countryside by Richard Mabey – and by a few personal experiences).

I also enjoyed the way that, at times, the language of botanical description formed a dense, impenetrable ‘thicket’ – growing from Greek and Latin roots. This was particularly evident when the botanical description of the complex structure of the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale – project reflection 22) lead to a baroque profusion of technical terms: bracts (modified or specialized leaves, especially associated with reproductive structures such as flowers, inflorescence axes, or cone scales – from the Latin bractea, thin metal plate, gold leaf variant of brattea … of obscure origin); glabrous (having no hairs or protrusions – from Latin glaber – bald): involucres (a series of bracts beneath or around a flower cluster – French from Latin involocrum – wrapper, envelope); pappi (a modified calyx composed of scales, bristles, or featherlike hairs, in plants of the composite family, such as the dandelion and the thistle – Latin, old man, down on certain seeds, from Greek papposcalyx (the sepals of a flower collectively, forming the outer floral envelope that protects the developing flower bud – from Latin, from Greek – kalux shell, from kaluptein to cover, hide …

The reason for choosing Rosebay willowherb, bindweed, Japanese knotweed (donkey rhubarb) and dandelions was simple – they all feature on the weed control section of Sheffield City Council’s website. Poppies, bracken and briar, sycamore and buddleja were all chosen because they also fall within the categories of pioneering or invasive plants – and they all, on investigation, yielded surprising amounts of cultural – psycho-botanical – reference.

Paul Evans, 2012

project reflections #27

Moss 

Quiet, of course, it adheres to

The cracks of waste-pipes, velvets,

Velours them; an enriching

Unnatural ruff swathing the urban ‘manifestation’:

The urban nature is basemented, semi-dark:

It musts, it is alone. 

John Silkin,  Penguin Modern Poets 7

In the places that have most recently been abandoned to returning nature – such as disused car parks and the various hard standings from newly failed enterprise – we have found the first pioneering clumps of dark green moss. Somehow, these most ancient of botanical life-forms have found the most fragile of germinative footholds for their diminutive spores – often within the shallowest cracks created by fluctuations of heat or by settling of the ground.

It is thus the brave mosses that are the first to re-vivify the sterility of such terrain.

Favouring the dank (and low levels of light) these pioneering plants – known as bryophytes – began a very similar enterprise some 65,000,000 years ago; leaving the ancient seas to break ground across the barren land … and it was the dead, damp, mosses that made the first soils for the vascular plants that subsequently spread their living carpets across the earth.   

Mosses are small, soft plants that are typically 1–10 cm (0.4–4 in) tall, though some species are much larger. They commonly grow close together in clumps or mats in damp or shady locations. They do not have flowers or seeds, and their simple leaves cover the thin wiry stems. At certain times mosses produce spore capsules which may appear as beak-like capsules borne aloft on thin stalks.

Botanically, mosses are bryophytes, or non-vascular plants. They differ from ‘higher’ plants by not having internal water-bearing vessels or veins, and no flowers and therefore no fruits, cones or seeds. They are small (a few centimeters tall) and herbaceous (nonwoody) and absorb water and nutrients through their leaves. Mosses have stems which may be simple or branched and upright or lax, simple leaves that often have midribs, roots (rhizoids) that anchor them to their substrate, and spore-bearing capsules on long stems. They harvest sunlight to create food through photosynthesis. Mosses do not absorb water or nutrients from their substrate through their roots, so while mosses often grow on trees, they are never parasitic on the tree.

They can be distinguished from the similar liverworts by their multi-cellular rhizoids. Also, in most mosses, the spore-bearing capsule enlarges and matures after its stalk elongates, while in liverworts the capsule enlarges and matures before its stalk elongates. Other differences are not universal for all mosses and all liverworts, but the presence of a clearly differentiated stem with simple-shaped, ribbed leaves – without deeply lobed or segmented leaves and not arranged in three ranks – all point to the plant being a moss.

There are approximately 12,000 species of moss classified in the Bryophyta.

Moss is often considered a weed in grass lawns, but is deliberately encouraged to grow under aesthetic principles exemplified by Japanese gardening. Moss is thought to add a sense of calm, age, and stillness to a garden scene.

A passing fad for moss-collecting in the late 19th century led to the establishment of mosseries in many British and American gardens. The mossery was typically constructed out of slatted wood, with a flat roof, open to the north side (maintaining shade). Samples of moss were installed in the cracks between wood slats. The whole mossery would then be regularly moistened to maintain growth.

project reflections #22

Taraxacum officinale

Escaping in memory from the season’s harsh, chill winds, I cast my mind back to the dandelion days of last spring, summer and early autumn. From March until October the vivid, cadmium yellow flowers of Taraxacum officinale, or common dandelion – and their superceding, globular silver seed-heads – are found to be distributed widely and in abundance across the gently dipping shoulders of the Don river valley. 

We have thus observed the dandelion – that most cosmopolitan of weeds – on many patches of wasteland and also, in naughty proliferation, across the cultivated lawns and pastures of Netherthorpe, Upperthorpe, Shalesmoor, Neepsend and Wardsend.

The dandelion is such a common plant that it is all to easy to become blind to its two extraordinarily complex stages of fruit and flower … but it is equal in its mystery to any other of the botanical organisms that we have encountered on our journeys around these parts. Not least, it would appear to confound the efforts of taxonomists to define its species with any precision – which is perhaps no surprise when one gives due consideration to this humble plant’s very singular ability to propagate in such numbers and to spread it’s progeny so widely and with such abandon through the action of the wind. 

Taraxacum officinale, the common dandelion (often simply called “dandelion”), is a herbaceous perennial plant of the family Asteraceae (Compositae). It can be found growing in temperate regions of the world, in lawns, on roadsides, on disturbed banks, on the shores of water ways, and other areas with moist soils. Taraxacum officinale is considered a weed species, especially in lawns and along roadsides; but it is sometimes used as a medicinal and in food preparation. As a nearly cosmopolitan weed, the common dandelion is best known for its bright yellow flower heads that turn into round balls of silver tufted fruits that blow away on the wind.

The dandelion grows from generally unbranched taproots and produces one to more than ten stems that are typically 5 to 40 cm tall but sometimes up to 70 cm tall. The stems can be tinted purplish, are upright or lax, and produce flower heads that are held as tall or taller than the foliage. The foliage is upright growing or horizontally orientated, with leaves that are unwinged or having narrowly winged petioles. The stems can be glabrous or are sparsely covered with short hairs. The 5–45 cm long and 1–10 cm wide leaves are oblanceolate, oblong, or obovate in shape with the bases gradually narrowing to the petiole  The leaf margins are typically shallowly lobed to deeply lobed and often lacerate or toothed with sharp or dull teeth and the leaves are all basal; each flowering stem lacks bracts and has one single flower head.

The yellow flower heads lack receptacle bracts and all the flowers, which are called florets, are ligulate and bisexual. The calyculi (the cup like bracts that hold the florets) are composed of 12 to 18 segments: each segment is reflexed and sometimes glaucous. The lanceolate shaped bractlets are in 2 series with the apices acuminate in shape. The 14 to 25 mm wide involucres are green to dark green or brownish green with the tips dark gray or purplish. The florets number 40 to over 100 per head, having corollas that are yellow or orange-yellow in color. The fruits, which are called cypselae, range in color from olive-green or olive-brown to straw-colored to grayish, they are oblanceoloid in shape and 2 to 3 mm long with slender beaks. The fruits have 4 to 12 ribs that have sharp edges. The fruits are mostly produced by apomixis (a form of asexual reproduction through the seeds). It blooms from March until October.

The silky pappi, which form the parachutes, are white to silver-white in color and around 6 mm wide. Dandelion plants have milky sap that has been used as a mosquito repellent; the milk has also been used to treat warts, as a folk remedy.

Taraxacum officinale is a common colonizer after fires, both from wind blown seeds and seed germination from the seed bank. The seeds remain viable in the seed bank for many years, with one study showing germination after nine years. This species is a somewhat prolific seed producer, with 54 to 172 seeds produced per head, and a single plant can produce more than 5,000 seeds a year. It is estimated that more than 97,000,000 seeds/hectare could be produced yearly by a dense stand of dandelions. When released, the seeds can be spread by the wind up to several hundred meters from their source, the seeds are also a common contaminate in crop and forage seeds.

The dandelion has historically had many English common names including: blowball, lion’s-tooth, cankerwort, milk-witch, yellow-gowan, Irish daisy, monks-head, priest’s-crown and puff-ball; other common names include: faceclock, pee-a-bed, wet-a-bed, canker-wort, and swine’s snout

Carl Linnaeus named the species Leondonton Taraxacum in 1753. The genus name Taraxacum, might be from the Arabic word “Tharakhchakon“,or from the Greek “Tarraxos“. The common name “dandelion,” comes from the French phrase “dent de lion” which means “lion’s tooth”, in reference to the jagged shaped foliage. The taxonomy of the genus Taraxacum is complicated by apomictic and polyploid lineages, and the taxonomy and nomenclatural situation of Taraxacum officinale is not yet fully resolved. This situation has been further complicated in the past by the recognition of numerous species, subspecies and microspecies. E.g. Rothmaler’s flora of Germany recognizes roughly 70 microspecies.

While the dandelion is considered a weed by most gardeners and lawn owners, the plant has several culinary uses. The specific name officinalis refers to its value as a medicinal herb, and is derived from the word opificina, later officina, meaning a workshop or pharmacy. Dandelion flowers can be used to make dandelion wine; and it has also been used in a saison ale called Pissenlit (literally “wet the bed” in French) which is made in Belgium. The greens are used in salads, the roots have been used to make a coffee-like drink and the plant was used by Native Americans as a food and medicine. Ground roasted dandelion root can be used as a coffee substitute. In Silesia, and other parts of Poland, dandelion flowers are used to make a honey substitute, to which lemon is added (so-called May-honey). This “honey” is believed to have a medicinal value, in particular against liver problems.

Dandelion root is a registered drug in Canada, sold principally as a diuretic. A leaf decoction can be drunk to “purify the blood”, for the treatment of anemia, jaundice, and also for nervousness. A hepatoprotective effect of chemicals extracted from dandelion root has been reported. Drunk before meals, dandelion root coffee is claimed to stimulate digestive functions and function as a liver tonic.


Paul Evans, 22 January 2012

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