Street Trees

There’s Norway to Confuse a Maple

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.

Spiky Scandinavian: Norway maple leaves and flowers

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.

Suburban charms: Norway Maple flowering quietly in a North London street
Suburban charms: Norway Maple flowering quietly in a North London street

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.

Jog on: Autumn colours beginning to show on this young street tree
Jog on: Autumn colours beginning to show on this young street tree

You’re never far from a Norway Maple in London, here’s a row including a purple leafed variety near Finsbury Park station:

3 replies on “There’s Norway to Confuse a Maple”

Your reasoning is flawed. Trying to replace the native ash with non native norway maples does nothing but pose a serious threat to the bio diversity of our forests. Norway maples have been in north america for over 300 years and still support about two types of wildlife. Contrast that with our native white or red oaks which support over 500 species. This is a NA perspective but it could very well be the same in the UK.

My point is that the Norway Maple, while not native to the British Isles, is from the very near continent (native to Belgium, separated by just 50 miles of sea) and provides habitat and a food source to many species that are native here. I take your point that in North America, Norway Maple comes from entirely different continent and will offer very little biodiversity support in your native ecosystem. I think we need to be a bit more expansive in our thinking about borders however, nature does not recognise political borders defined by one species (us)!

I live in a (New England) town in the US where Norway Maples were planted in the 1950’s in housing developments. Several factors make them undesirable. The wood is weak. The proliferous seedlings can only be pulled by hand for a short time in hard soils. Herbicides are not very successful unless applied repeatedly, polluting the groundwater. Digging by hand or using a propane torch on the gnarly roots which, if left, soon invade and destroy sewer and waterlines becomes the only solution. Mowing will cut the top but only strengthens the root which will quickly put up a new top.

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