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Some thoughts on the Sycamore tree

August 5, 2012

Some thoughts on the Sycamore tree and other invasive species:

Invaders must die:

Mention the word sycamore to almost any conservationist or woodland manager and you will find they have a very low opinion of this tree. They will tell you how rampant it is, swamping our native species with its rocket-like growth and unstoppable breeding, and that we need to cut down as many as possible and replace them with oak and beech. Mention something like Himalayan Balsam or Japanese Knotweed and you will get a similar response; it must be eradicated! “Balsam bashing” – waking the poor plants with sticks before they go to seed – has become a popular activity among conservation groups all over the country. Ecologists talk about the urgency of these issues in terms which suggest that if we don’t control these species they will completely take over, and we’ll all be living in a jungle of Japanese Knotweed, even though a recent report put the cost of eradicating the stuff in the UK at around £1.6 billion.

I have previously tended to go along with this way of thinking, believing that the best thing for Britain’s ecology is to return to the relatively balanced state it was in about a thousand years ago, and for that state to be guarded fiercely against floral invasion. However, having experienced living in woodland and wasteland populated by these species for the last few years I have come to see a more complex picture. The fact is time doesn’t go backwards in ecology. There is no way that things will ever return to the way they were. The question is: where is our ecosystem going?

Sacred institutions:

The Forestry Commission and the National Trust own and manage a large proportion of this country’s natural resources; woodland, meadows, marshland, mountains, etc. The generally understood purpose of these institutions is to conserve and keep “natural” the British countryside so that we the general public can go and do rambling, cycling, climbing and other outdoor activities in a beautiful environment, untainted by the plastic and concrete nastiness of human civilization. Signs are everywhere telling us not to drop litter, and after we have had our picnics we awkwardly carry home our empty crisp packets and drinks cans, ashamed of our corrupt selves in the face of “pure” nature. These nature reserves are carefully monitored and managed by a large workforce of wardens and woodland managers (many of whom are volunteers), and a large part of this management is related to controlling invasive species.

Speaking to a National Trust woodland manager about the unmanaged woodland in which I currently live, I was told that if the National Trust were responsible for this land, a significant and very costly purging operation would have to take place. He told me that almost all of the young sycamore trees would have to be cut down, the ash trees would need thinning, and young oak and beech trees would need to be planted with fences around them to protect them from deer. He pointed out to me the lack of any oak or beech saplings in the forest due to overpopulation of deer which, if the National Trust were in charge, would be culled regularly. A lot of work, he said, and a lot of funding would be required; hence the land owners have been reluctant to manage the woods. But, does this work really need to be done?

A welcome foreigner:

The sycamore tree (acer pseudoplatanus), native to central and eastern Europe, arrived in Britain around the year 1487. It has only been considered an invasive in recent times and contrary to popular belief, these trees have many uses, some of which have been forgotten over time. Here are some:

  • The wood, which is light in colour and easy to work with, has been used in violin making and furniture making for centuries.

  • Honey Bees love the nectar of sycamore flowers, and apparently produce excellent honey when kept near to a tree

  • When cut down sycamore trees will grow back from the stump in stands of thin poles. These can be coppiced biannually for firewood.

  • The fact that sycamores grow so fast means that they are great producers of biomass, which locks carbon, limiting the amount of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere.

  • The leaves of coppiced sycamore and other trees used to be used as forage for farm animals. The large leaves give shade in summer, make good washing up cloths and excellent toilet paper.

But surely, if a tree has so many uses to us, it would be in peril of being wiped out by human beings due to over use? If humans were making efficient use of the land in this country, making use of resources at a local level, then certainly sycamore would no longer been seen as an invader, and more as a friend. The same could be said of Himalayan Balsam, whose seeds can be eaten like lentils, or Japanese Knotweed, which can be harvested like Asparagus in the spring, or of the deer whose meat was enjoyed by Romans but has been forgotten by us. By making use of these resources human beings play a vital role in controlling the woodland ecosystem, but as the human population in the UK has become urbanised over the last couple of centuries, the woodland has found itself without a top predator. It is not just in predation that humans affect the woodland, we also have tended to shape it by the way we cut down trees to make paths, roads and clearings, creating edges where more diverse ecosystems can flourish. Many of the plant species we know as wild are in fact only able to survive in this country because, consciously or unconsciously, humans have altered it to make it suitable for them.

It may upset the views of many environmentalists for me to say this but I do not believe in such a thing as a “natural” ecosystem without humans. The ecosystems managed by institutions such as DEFRA, the National Trust and Forestry Commission are not in balance, and constantly have to be tampered with to artificially balance once species against another. Abundant resources go unseen all year round on these nature reserves and parks; trees go without being coppiced and nuts and seeds go uneaten by humans. All the while money is getting thrown at controlling invasive species. To understand the future of our ecosystem I think we need to form a different opinion of the invasive plants which the media tell us to fear. For us urbanised humans, seeing ourselves as part of an ecosystem rather than just onlookers is quite a leap for the imagination, but this is the way it is. We have to stop thinking that everything we do is necessarily unnatural and that the environment has to be protected from us, and start to understand the part we have to play in it. My feelings for the sycamore tree have completely changed since started living in woodland and trying to look at things in this way. If I can be sure of one thing its that as far as the forest is concerned everything has its place.

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4 Comments
  1. Thought I’d let you know I enjoyed reading this in Spain. (I’m back off there in a fortnight for 3 weeks so don’t know if/when I’ll make it to Syon Lane/Runnymede.)

  2. Totally agree, as an arborist I hate the sycamore. Its as useless as those thorn bush bastards that populate the backyard of 50% americans

    -Carlos Hernandez

  3. Curiously the Americans mean a different tree by Sycamore – namely usually the American Plane or Sycamore – Platanus occidentalis. Wonder why this American would hate a plane tree?

  4. Yes, I tasted what i think was a Japanese Knotweed out of curiosity a few year ago – a tangy taste like rhubarb? Interesting take on ecology – of course plants have been moving around for millennia/(billennia?) but it takes a long time for inset pollinators, predators , grazers etc to evolve to catch up – so there can be serious imbalances develop – Rhodedendron, Bracken to name a couple of less useful species.

    Really interesting post, thank you.

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