Categories
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:

Categories
Countryside

Sycamores in the British landscape

Soon after I first became interested in plants and conservation I became aware of the concept of native and non-native species. I grew up in Dover, a port town where xenophobic attitudes are paradoxically ingrained in a population who perceive themselves to be on the frontline of an unfinished European war and are ever ready for an imminent invasion of unintelligible foreigners, so I was used to this concept and knew what was expected of me.

Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) in northern England
Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) on the march in northern England

In the local woodlands the unfortunate Sycamore was singled out as a non-native species, a recent invader from Alsace, Franche-Comté or maybe even further afield. Europe’s largest maple was intent on ousting our native, British trees through unseemly reproductive vigour unmatched by our altogether more restrained climax vegetation.

I made it my patriotic duty to single-handedly eradicate the Sycamore menace from local woodland where each spring thousands of seedlings would threaten the native Beech (Fagus sylvatica), Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and Yew (Taxus bacatta) woodland defined 10,000 years ago. Or so I thought at the time. In reality Sycamore does throw out many, many seedlings every year but these cannot survive to maturity in the shade of Yew and Beech. Sycamore is a coloniser of disturbed or open woodland and can act as a very good nursery plant for our more shade-tolerant but less fecund woodland trees. Sycamore does not therefore colonise our woodlands, but rather becomes a component of them with a part to play in the real and inclusive ecosystem. And of course our woodlands – ancient or otherwise – have been shaped by Man for our own, usually sustainable, exploitation for millennia.

Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) near Hadrian's Wall
Lone Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) giving it's name to Sycamore Gap on Hadrian's Wall

On my recent tour o’ the North, I was struck by how important to the upland Pennine landscape the Sycamore is, it has been a part of the scene for generations. It takes on the appearance that Oak does further south where ancient and dignified trees stand sentinel in a field or as a roadside reminder of a long ago grubbed-up hedgerow.

So my view of the Sycamore has changed – I appreciate the part it plays in the landscape, it is a familiar tree to many and it is not invasive, which is perhaps the measure of how we should judge the menace posed by plants. Sycamore may not appear in prehistoric pollen records, but its arrival on British shores is a mysterious event that cannot be dated.

Looking north to Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall from the former Roman military road:


There is a very interesting white paper published by the Woodland Trust on their website for those who may like to read more on the subject.