Sycamore trees are fairly common throughout Exeter and easy to find. They are typically planted in parks and green spaces and if allowed to grow can reach heights of up to 35 meters. They are sometimes planted as street trees but in Exeter this isn't very well suited due to the size restraints as well as other obstacles such as CCTV cameras, street lights and so on. There is a good sized Sycamore tree on the Cathedral grounds which is next to the large Horse chestnut tree. There are many different cultivars and varieties - the most unusual one is the purple leafed variety. Quite often Sycamore trees are mixed up with Norway maple trees as the leaves are similar as well as the fruit (the papery helicopters which are actually called Samaras).
Sycamore is actually native to central Europe and was thought to be introduced into the UK in the 1500's. It is now a naturalised species and a very common tree in the UK. There is a possibility that it was brought over by the Romans. They can live for up to 400 years although most of the Sycamore trees in Exeter are replaced before they get anywhere near this age. The shape of the crown is a very nicely rounded dome shape and can transform any park or green space. It can also grow and colonise all types of soil conditions - even wastelands! The most iconic feature of Sycamore is the papery winged seeds which most people know them as 'helicopters'.
The leaves are palmate with 5 lobes and are about 7 - 16cm in size. The leaf stalks (petioles) are often a bright red colour. Aphids are often seen on the leaves which is why they are sometimes sticky to the touch due to the honeydew left behind. Sometimes black blotches appear on the upper side of the leaves which is actually a type of fungus called tar spot (Rhytisma acerinum). Although it doesn't appear to affect the health of the tree it does mean that the air quality is good as the tar spot fungus only tolerates clean air. The buds are a good size good for learning how to identify winter buds for beginners. The buds are often in opposite pairs and are mostly green in colour with black outlines and tips.
For the common variety of Sycamore the leaves turn yellow during the Autumn time
The light green flowers are held on spikes called racemes and attract a wide variety of insect pollinators
The flowers are very pretty and unusual but are often overlooked as they are light green and blend in with the tree canopy. The flowers hang in spikes (racemes) and are light green in colour when young. It is monoecious which means the individual flowers are either male or female and can be found on the same tree but different parts. Interestingly one year a Sycamore tree could be all male and the next all female. There can also be occasions where one part of the tree is all male and the rest all female and the other way around. The flowers are insect pollinated - typically be bees.
The bark is flaked and fairly smooth to the touch when younger but as it matures it does become a bit more rough. The colour of the bark tends to start off grey and as it matures it becomes more brown with light pink flakes. The fruit of the tree is the famous winged 'helicopter' and is typical of the Acer species. Each winged seed (samara) houses two seeds and is dispersed by the wind during the Autumn time. A mature tree can produce thousands of these winged seeds and as they are scattered by the wind can easily germinate in the following spring. For this reason Sycamore has been classed as a weed tree. I have seen Sycamore seedlings growing out of drains and gutters so they really can grow in poor soil conditions with relative ease.
OTHER USEFUL LINKS
- Sycamore is a deciduous broadleaf tree native tree to central, eastern and southern Europe
- It was probably introduced to the UK in the Middle Ages and is now a naturalised species
- It can grow to 35 metres and can live for up to 400 years
- The bark is dark pink-grey and smooth when young, but becomes cracked and develops small plates with age
- The twigs are pink-brown and hairless. The leaf veins are hairy on the underside
- Sycamore has a rounded, dome-shaped crown that is extremely dense. Twisted branches provide shelter for small mammals such as squirrels and various birds (during the nesting season)
- Sycamore is particularly tolerant of 'sea spray' and may be planted near the coast
- Sycamore is attractive to aphids and therefore a variety of their predators, such as ladybirds, hoverflies and birds
- Sycamore is a monoecious plant which means that it produces individual male and female flowers on the same plant
- Flowers are yellowish-green, arranged in drooping clusters. Sycamore blooms during April
- The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of a number of moths, including the sycamore moth, plumed prominent and maple prominent
- The flowers provide a good source of pollen and nectar to bees and other insects
- The seeds are eaten by birds and small mammals
- In some parts of the UK the winged seeds are known as 'helicopters', and used in flying competitions and model-making by children
- Fruit of sycamore are brown, woody balls that can be seen on the tree starting from October. They remain on the tree during the winter. Fully ripe fruit splits to release seed
- Seeds of sycamore are arranged in V-shaped pairs and equipped with wings that facilitate dispersal by wind.
- One tree produces up to 10,000 seed per season
- Sycamore timber is hard and strong, pale cream and with a fine grain
- It is used for making furniture and kitchenware as the wood does not taint or stain the food
- Mature trees are extremely tolerant of wind, so are often planted in coastal and exposed areas, as a wind break
- They are also tolerant of pollution and are therefore planted in towns and cities
- Sycamore is susceptible to sooty bark, which can lead to wilting of the crown and death of the tree
- Sycamore requires fertile, moist and well-drained soil and full sun for successful development
- Mottled bark composed of irregular "flakes" creates impression of illness. The name "sycamore" probably refers to "sick" appearance of the tree
- One old sycamore tree provided protection for the large troops of General Washington during the battle on the Brandywine Battlefield Park in Pennsylvania in the 18th century. Ever since, the sycamore tree is a symbol of hope and protection in the USA.
- Sycamore also symbolises strength, eternity and divinity
- Sycamore also serves as a windbreak thanks to strong root system that holds the plant firmly attached to the ground in areas with strong winds
- The wood of sycamore was commonly used to make kitchen items and toys
- Sycamore trees are used to make Welsh love spoons in the UK. A tradition that still continues today
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