Making a virtue of necessity, I felt I should find out a bit more about sycamore trees. So long vilified as an ‘invader’, the tide may at last be turning in their favour. Supposedly introduced from mountain regions of central Europe sometime in the 15th century, sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) soon became regarded as something of pest for its fecundity and large, slow-to-rot leaves. However, as Richard Mabey points out in, ‘Weeds. The Story of Outlaw Plants’, sycamores may have been with us much longer than that, retreating and advancing in response to climate change – the ultimate survivor.
One piece of evidence which suggests a long presence for sycamore in Scotland, at least, is its Gaelic name, fior chrann (‘true tree’), which dates back to the late 6th/early 7th century west coast kingdom of Dál Riata. To be a true native, sycamore would have had to have arrived in Scotland without human intervention but it could also be an archaeotype, a tree introduced by humans some time before 1500 but now naturalised. Of course these distinctions are somewhat arbitrary…
Sycamores grow a bit faster than oaks so, based on its three metre girth, my tree is probably about 110 years old – old enough to have seen many changes in and around Durham. The sycamore Sue and I found in Ryedale in the North York Moors in April is older still, and a great example of how old trees can be a key component of the ecosystem, or indeed a small ecosystem in their own right. The organic matter which has slowly accumulated where branches join the trunk hosts much moss but also larger plants – a small holly tree and a cuckoo-pint, amongst the more obvious. I suspect there would be plenty more to see if we went back now.
Cuckoo-pint (Arum maculatum) growing on the branch of an old sycamore tree
It’s hard to label a tree playing host to so many native species as a genuine intruder!