In my series on British trees I’ve decided to include a relative newcomer to our woodlands: the sycamore. Rather than being a native species, the sycamore is described as an archaeophyte, meaning that it was introduced before 1500 AD; and to some people, including many conservationists, it is seen as an invasive tree that has little or nothing to contribute to our ancient broadleaved woodlands, stealing light from the seedlings of other species with its dense canopy of leaves and creating an environment that supports relatively few insects.
I was going to leave the sycamore well alone… and then I remembered the Birnam Sycamore, a massive 300-year-old retainer which stands in solemn dignity just a stone’s throw from the more famous Birnam Oak on the bank of the River Tay at Dunkeld. Its long, mossy limbs and beautifully patterned bark are impressive in their own right, and its crown seems to extend right up into the sky. Just standing next to it, with the first flush of leaves bursting into life, was exhilarating.
Looking a little deeper, I found that dotted around the country are plenty of venerable old sycamores that have witnessed a great deal of history happening beneath their branches, or even hanging from them, in rather gruesome ways. Sycamores might not have been worshipped by the druids, but they still seem to have a taste for drama.
Above & below: The Birnam Sycamore has a girth of 25 feet
“The Great Maple, Sycamore, or False Plane (Acer Pseudo-platanus) is not a native tree, but it appears to have been introduced from the Continent as far back as the fifteenth century, so that it has had time during the intervening centuries to get well established among us, and by means of its winged seeds to distribute itself to remote corners of our islands. It appears to be fond of exposed situations, growing to a large size even near the sea, where the salt-laden gales destroy all other deciduous trees….”
Edward Step, ‘Wayside and Woodland Trees’ (1904)
Some sources speculate that the sycamore or ‘great maple’, a native to Central Europe and Western Asia, may have been brought back to Britain by knights returning from the Crusades; others point at wandering monks as the perpetrators. The thing is that no one really knows exactly when the sycamore first arrived here, or who brought it. In archaeological investigations its pollen is indistinguishable from the field maple, Britain’s only native maple species.
Even the name ‘sycamore’ has a rather confused history. The naturalist Gertrude Clarke Nuttall explains, in her lovely little book, ‘Trees and How They Grow’ (1913):
“The true Sycamore is the Ficus sycomorus, an Eastern tree, whose fruit is like a fig, and whose leaves resemble those of a mulberry… By a mistake ascribed to Ruellius, a French physician and writer (1480), its present name became transferred to it, and an interesting suggestion as to the origin of the mistake is made. Tradition always held that Zacchaeus climbed into the Ficus sycomoros – the true Sycamore – to see Our Lord pass, but in the mystery plays of the Middle Ages, since the true tree did not grow in the West, the Great Maple with its heavy shade was substituted, and hence the Eastern name became attached to it.”
The sycamore could therefore claim to have Biblical connections, but this was not enough to impress the 17th century writer and horticulturist John Evelyn. When he wrote his ‘Sylva’ of 1664, the sycamore’s popularity was annoying him quite considerably:
“The Sycamore, or wild fig-tree, falsely so called, is… one of the maples, and is much more in reputation for its shade than it deserves; for the honey-dew leaves, which fall early (like those of the ash) turn to mucilage and noxious insects, and putrefy with the first moisture of the season, so as they contaminate and mar our walks; and are therefore, by my consent, to be banished from all curious gardens and avenues.”
John Evelyn, Sylva, 1664
Despite this dire warning, by the 1800s sycamores had made good their escape from landscaped gardens and begun naturalising themselves, helped no doubt by their tolerance of inhospitable conditions such as windy coastal sites, salt-laden air, or industrial pollution.
Sycamore leaves are palmate with five distinct lobes, and can grow to over 6 inches (16 cm) in width. In late summer the leaves sometimes develop black spots, caused by a fungus (Rhytisma acerinum). The greenish yellow flowers, which appear in spring, hang in small racemes; after pollination by insects, they develop into the familiar winged seeds, known as samaras (or ‘helicopters’ to generations of schoolchildren!) Autumn winds send the seeds spiralling down from the tree to land on the woodland floor, where, next spring, they will lose no time in sending out sturdy shoots to form a forest of saplings.
While sycamore leaves can turn yellow in autumn, I’m finding that the trees currently displaying brilliant reds and oranges, which I once assumed to be sycamore, are, in fact, Norway maple (Acer platanoides). This species was introduced to Britain in the 17th century, and is popular for town and park planting. At first glance, the leaves appear quite similar to the sycamore, but in general the Norway maple has sharper points. I have already mentioned the field maple, a native species but uncommon in Scotland, whose leaves are somewhere between the two.
In ‘The New Sylva’ by Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet (2014), the sycamore is described as having a dense shading habit, with “slow-decaying leaf litter and vigorous natural regeneration, which in combination can alter woodland ecosystems.” Its value as an attractive timber is acknowledged, along with its use as a highly productive firewood crop. Although it cannot boast the huge variety of wildlife that is supported by an oak tree, for example, it does host high numbers of aphids that are an important food source for birds. These aphids are, in fact, responsible for the sticky secretions of ‘honeydew’ that drip from sycamore trees onto unwarily parked cars. In addition, sycamore flowers are a source of pollen for bees, the seeds are eaten by birds and small mammals, while the caterpillars of several moth species munch on the leaves.
Undeniably, one of the most beautiful features of mature sycamore trees is their bark. The thick flaking crust is curiously patterned and textured, providing thousands of little crevices for insects to hide.
Sycamore wood is used by many craftsmen, including Justbod from York. He says:
“Sycamore wood is a beautiful tan to creamy-white colour, often strikingly plain, making it an ideal choice for pyrography (the art or technique of decorating wood or leather by burning a design on the surface with various shaped and heated metal points.)
Generally straight grained, sycamore can display a stunning three-dimensional quality when polished. This is particularly evident in cuts containing rippled, freckled or curly grain, which can give quite subtly beautiful effects, whilst still retaining a generally crisp white/tan overall appearance. Viewing a piece of polished sycamore from different angles can accentuate this, almost like the 3D pictures that magically change appearance when you move your head from one side to another.
Rewarding to work with, it cuts and polishes well, but can take quite a lot of sanding to finish properly. It is a popular choice for kitchen items as well as high quality furniture and musical instruments.”
More of Justbod’s beautiful sycamore pieces can be found on his website, www.justbod.co.uk.
While young sycamores are regarded by many as pushy intruders, popping up where they are not wanted and multiplying far too quickly, there’s an entirely different feeling around the ancient, often solitary trees that stand weather-beaten and proud, centuries-old warriors from a half-forgotten time. These trees seem to have a distinctive character of their own, and some of them have played an important part in generations of human lives.
Take, for example, the Corstorphine Sycamore, which, until 1998, was growing in the heart of Corstorphine, on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Some sources consider that it was planted by a monk in the 15th century, but others believe that it was a remnant of an avenue of sycamores that once led to Corstorphine Castle. In 1679 it was a silent witness to the murder of local landowner James Baillie (2nd Lord Forrester). A notorious womaniser, Baillie had seduced his own niece, Lady Christian Nimmo. Lady Christian waited for him to leave the tavern one night, and in the heat of a quarrel she drew Baillie’s own sword from its scabbard and stabbed him. She fled the scene, but was later caught and executed in Edinburgh.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the Corstorphine Sycamore soon developed the reputation of being haunted by a White Lady, and local schoolchildren would dare each other to play beneath its branches. There was also a story that the dastardly Forrester had buried some treasure in the tree’s roots, and that every spring this treasure gave a golden hue to the fresh leaves. Lured by the promise of riches, one villager decided to have a dig around one night with a shovel, and found himself being commanded by an eerie disembodied voice to stop at once.
The Corstorphine Sycamore obviously had a fearsome reputation, but this did not stop a gale from snapping it in two on Boxing Day, 1998. The residents of Corstorphine were saddened by the loss of this 62-foot veteran, and local carpenters were commissioned to create something of lasting beauty from the timber. Clocks, boxes, vases, chalices and even violins were fashioned lovingly from the fallen wood, so that the memory of the Corstorphine Sycamore was preserved. But sycamore is amazingly resilient: in recent years new shoots have pushed up from the stump, proving that there is still life in this formidable old tree.
While we’re still on the subject of hauntings – and it’s only a few weeks until Hallowe’en, after all – there’s a rather chilling story attached to a sycamore in Finnis, County Down, in Northern Ireland. Early in the 20th century it was believed that the area around the bridge in the village was haunted, and a local priest was asked to carry out an exorcism. He succeeded in capturing the evil spirit in a bottle, which he secreted, for reasons known unto himself, inside the trunk of a sycamore tree that stood by the bridge. Although the hauntings ceased, the tree itself became the object of much fear and superstition, and it subsequently died. It’s not possible to know how soon this occurred, but it would be interesting to find out! Nothing but the gaunt trunk and a couple of withered limbs remained, but these still held a remarkable presence – so much so that, when new power lines were being routed through the village, the workmen had to be persuaded to run the cables through the tree, instead of cutting it down.
A slightly more reassuring story comes from across the border in Laois, in the Irish Republic. In the 6th century St Fintan established a monastery at Clonenagh, next to a holy well, and this became a popular destination for pilgrims for hundreds of years. In the 1800s a landowner filled the well in, but the water was soon found to be bubbling up inside a hollow sycamore tree which stood close by. Delighted by the miracle, visitors would hang rags on the tree as offerings, and hammer coins into its bark. The ‘money tree’ of Clonenagh blew down in 1994, but one source states that new shoots have appeared from its base.
Not to be omitted from this little ramble around ancient sycamores is a specimen at Newbattle Abbey, said to have been planted by the Earl of Lothian in 1560, which is the earliest known planting date for a sycamore in Scotland. This tree attained a majestic height of 95 feet but came crashing down in a storm in May 2006. Saplings grown from the tree have now been planted in its original position, in the grounds of Newbattle Abbey College.
A grand old sycamore (above and below) which guards the entrance to Castle Campbell in Dollar Glen has a powerful presence which almost overshadows the castle itself, especially as you approach. According to the website of Historic Environment Scotland, it is called the ‘Maiden Tree’, commemorating an unnamed princess who was banished to Castle Campbell – otherwise known as Castle Gloom – as a punishment for falling in love below her station.
In the courtyard of Loch Leven Castle (above), close to the entrance to the Glassin Tower where Mary Queen of Scots was once incarcerated, I noticed two wonderful old sycamores with the most beautiful bark. These, too, had a presence. It strikes me that sycamores like to grow where there are plenty of emotional undercurrents!
Talking of which, over the centuries, sycamores seem to have lent themselves very well to the purpose of hanging-trees: it’s easy to see why, as their lower limbs grow thick, long and straight. Examples still stand in the grounds of Leith Hall, Aberdeenshire and Blairquhan Castle, Ayrshire, and there must be many more. Some sycamores were also known as ‘dule’ or ‘dool’ trees, from ‘deurshuil’, meaning ‘weeping eye’: these were remembrance trees, where a chieftain and his followers would stand to mourn the loss of their kinsmen.
So, while young sycamores continue to be weeded out of ancient woodland – and rightly so, to maintain the proper ecological balance – there are still a few extraordinary specimens that deserve our respect because they seem to hold a kind of collective memory in their sap, like the DNA that we carry in our own genes. Like the last crusader, they stand silently on the outskirts of time, offering solace in grief, vibrant with life while remembering death, their long generous branches perhaps even spanning the gulf between the two.
‘Wayside and Woodland Trees‘ by Edward Step (1904)
‘Trees and How They Grow‘ by Gertrude Clarke Nuttall (1913)
‘The New Sylva‘ by Gabriel Hemery and Sarah Simblet (2014)
‘Sylva‘ by John Evelyn (1664)
The Woodland Trust
Corstorphine Sycamore: The Scotsman
Clonenagh Sycamore: Catholic Ireland
Newbattle Abbey Sycamore: Newbattle Abbey College
Haunted sycamore at Finnis, County Down:
– BBC news
– Ancient Tree Hunt
The Maiden Tree at Castle Campbell: Historic Environment Scotland
Tree photos copyright © Colin & Jo Woolf except field maple (public domain)
Thanks to Justbod for his contribution and for allowing me to include photos of his work.