There are lots of maples, but the most commonly planted street trees are The Norwegian or Norway (Acer platanoides) and the Sycamore (acer pseudoplatanus), both are handsome species and at first glance difficult to tell apart. They have a lot in common, they are similar sizes and have similar native distribution.
The differences are subtle, Norway’s leaves are spikier than Sycamore’s, their flowers are produced in distinctive fresh green clusters before the leaves appear in spring, Sycamore on the other hand produces a long pendulous flower spike or panicle. Norway’s bark is lighter coloured and grooved, compared to the darker and scalier Sycamore.
The charms of large Maples are not lost on urban tree planters – the Norway Maple especially is a popular street tree – and nurserymen realised the merits of this species early on and set to work creating a myriad of varieties. Look out for Norway Maples of various leaf colour from gold through to deep purple, fastigiate and columnar trees and the inevitable variegated variety. Significant among these charms is Norway’s ability to cope with many soil types and it’s toleration of ‘hard surface’ urban situations where it may be exposed to extremes of temperature, air pollution and drought.
Despite the Norwegian soubriquet, Acer platanoides is native over much of Europe as far west as Belgium and France. If it wasn’t for post ice-age sea level rises, a few additional centuries of continental connection may have seen both species arriving in what is now eastern Britain under their own steam. As it is, the introduction of Sycamore is lost in the mists of time and records of Norway maple in cultivation date from 1683 (according to the BRC). No doubt practical and ornamental planting of Maples has played a part in their ‘invasive’ distribution, but, as the structure of our ancient woodlands testify, ever since we needed reliable timber supplies we have controlled tree planting.
Norway maples, like Sycamore, thrive and regenerate freely in our climate and I welcome them. Among the conservation community there is a view that both species should be weeded out but I believe this is flawed. In our age of massive human environmental intervention, extinction threats to common species like Ash as well as climate change, I think we need to embrace nearly-native, vigorous large tree species that may become important components in future woodlands.
You’re never far from a Norway Maple in London, here’s a row including a purple leafed variety near Finsbury Park station: