A Roman Invader or a simple Country Bumpkin?

The sycamore, or if you only work in highly useful latin terms, Acer pseudoplatanus. Though I am sorry to disappoint so many of us avid latin speakers, for the sake of this article and with a little afterthought for our own sanity, lets agree on sycamore. Believe it or not, this simple giant that can be found throughout the land is the source of many a scientific debate. One might even go as far to say that this guy is the marmite of the tree world, you either love him or you hate him.


The Sycamore

And at the forefront of the debates surrounding this magnificent tree? His origin. Is this species a native or not? Apparently not. Such xenophobia is quite shocking I know, yet the world of wildlife is probably the only circle where this is a perfectly acceptable trait and quite rightly so. It was first thought that this specimen was introduced by those generous and playful Romans, but even this is now hotly debated with many arguing that it was in fact the middle ages (1500s) when this tree popped into our forests. Rather like that next door neighbour who pops round for tea and never leaves.
The evidence used in these arguments comes from the pollen records and other proxy records. To those of you who don’t know what a proxy record is (or as I have sometimes heard them named, poxy records) they are natural or human records. For example, ‘A Frost Fair on The Thames at Temple Stairs’ by Abraham Hondius is a form of proxy, showing differences in temperatures over the centuries. But back to the sycamore. In the pollen records the sycamore does not present itself until the 1500s. And the major lack of any old native names for the species would suggest that the history of the sycamore in the UK is not as old as some think. However, it has been suggested by those such as scientist Ted Green that this is because pollen of the sycamore becomes confused with other similar species such as the field maple. For anyone who has done pollen analysis, it is definitely an exact science with the identification of some of those little blobs on that petri dish being quite similar.

But why does it matter? Who really cares if it’s native, Roman or just middle aged? It’s only a tree after all! Surely if the animals like it and its not harming us then why get our knickers in a twist? (good point). And this is true, sycamores are loved by many species, with caterpillars munching away happily on their leaves, then providing food for hungry birds and the flowers providing a good source of pollen. Well, the main worry is that they are out competing other species. I don’t mean in some kind of bizarre tree sports day, with those pesky sycamores winning not only the 100 and 400m but coming a convincing first in the sack race. No, that would be silly. I mean in terms of winning light, nutrients and space. Could he be growing in places where we would rather see or native species? But then where’s the cut off point? Surely after 500 years of residency we could grant this tree a little lenience?

The truth? It’s all a bit unclear and so far there is no solid evidence to suggest that these trees do any harm to the natives. Though this has not stopped some wildlife groups removing the tree. But in all honesty, the only way we could rid ourselves would be if there was some huge change in climate and we were all plunged into some horrific ice age. I certainly haven’t heard anything as farfetched as that, have you? And lets face it, as a former colonial empire, can we really judge this species? They seem to be doing a better job of fitting in than we did!

Sycamore Leaf

Sycamore Leaf

So there you have it, when it comes to the sycamore its all a case of handbags at dawn for us ecologists and many a dendrologist. Much like a black grouse lekking ground they all assemble in a meadow and see who can shout the loudest. Not literally of course, but it would certainly be amusing to witness. And after all this you may notice that I have not offered my own opinion in this topic. Well, to tell the truth, I just don’t have a big enough handbag.

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Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard
I have been a bird enthusiast since I was a child and have just completed my MSc at Newcastle University on 'Biodiversity Conservation and Ecosystem Management.'
Eleanor Daisy Upstill-Goddard

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