The Maple Family

Sycamore and Norway Maple

As the saying goes – familiarity breeds contempt – or more usually just the outcome of not really taking notice of things.  As a dog owner there are certain walks I do regularly from my house, sometimes I let Willow the dog choose which way we go and other times I’ll overrule or she’ll see which way I want to turn at the end of the driveway.  We share the responsibility for choosing but ultimately there’s only a finite number of options – I’m not complaining though because if you’ve seen the videos of my walks you’ll know I’ve got some great areas just a short distance from my doorstep.

Have a look …
Pt1. Wild spinach, Bladder wrack, 3 cornered leek, Greater reedmace & Alder
Gorse, Silver Birch, Burdock, & Soft Rush
Pt 2 Of Barrys Extended Woodland Walk

There is an issue though and if left unchecked it can seriously affect how you connect with nature, so what I’m proposing for your next walk out is, as the old O2 advert used to say, “be more dog”.  It doesn’t matter how many times Willow walks the same route it’s always presenting new things to explore, always exciting and always different for her.  But ask yourself when did you last approach a repetitive walk or area with the same gusto?  This came to me last week when I walked a well-trodden route and suddenly realised a tree I’d walked past hundred, if not thousands, of times was not actually what I had passed it off as with unexcited eyes.  I will explain more but the theme is simple, open your eyes and really look at the magic of everything you pass and observe the changes as we travel through the seasons, who knows what you’ll discover.

Willow the dog
Willow never, ever, ever gets tired of her tennis ball and often plays her own version of hide and seek called “Where’s Willow” just to keep us on our toes.

Let’s get back to the trees though.  The tree that triggered this musing was something I had simply passed off as ‘it’s only a Sycamore’ (Acer pseudoplatanus).  For starters nothing in nature should be discussed with the opening of ‘it’s only’ so I’ve had a word with myself and it won’t happen again, I promise.  I blame it on the fact Sycamore doesn’t get a very good press and is often viewed as the tree version of a weed but it’s an amazing tree that in the future may play an important role in the British countryside if Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) continues to decline through die back.  Even the renowned works ‘Sylva’ by John Evelyn published in 1664 didn’t set a very good tone…

The sycamore… one of the maples, and is much more in reputation for its shade than it deserves; for the honey-dew leaves, which fall early turn to mucilage and noxious insects, and putrefy with the first moisture of the season, so as they contaminate and mar our walks; and are therefore, by my consent, to be banished from all curious gardens and avenues.

So as you probably gather he wasn’t a fan.  I can also guarantee if you’re a regular train commuter that you probably aren’t either due to the fact the announcement of delays caused by ‘leaves on the line’ are usually the result of the slippery mucilage nature Evelyn described.  From a bushcraft perspective though it’s a great tree – readily available, easy to identify, easy to carve, non-toxic, odourless, tasteless, reasonable fire wood… the list goes on.  What I want to focus on though is the easy to identify.  The leaf is the thing that really makes it easy, the distinctive palmate pattern that is reminiscent of the maple leaf displayed on the Canadian flag… but it’s not identical as that’s a different tree in the maple family.  And that’s the point, what I had passed off as a Sycamore actually wasn’t at all.  Now don’t get me wrong it wasn’t something fantastically rare but it was something I didn’t think I had in my immediate area at all but quite frankly I just wasn’t paying enough attention or approaching things with fresh, excited eyes – I needed to be more dog.

Norway Maple
It’s just a sycamore or is it?

The tree I had actually encountered was a Norway Maple (Acer platanoides).  So let’s compare so we can see where I went wrong with my dismissal.  For the purposes of ease Sycamore is always described first.  Bark – smooth grey and sometimes fissured with age relates to both and as the one I encountered was fairly young it was most definitely in the smooth grey bracket.  Branches – grey-green twigs OR green sometimes tinged red doesn’t exactly leap out as obviously different if they’re in the green spectrum.  Leaves – opposite up to 15cm long and divided into 5 toothed lobes OR up to 15cm 5 -7 toothed sharply pointed lobes.  Flowers – yellow pendulous OR greenish yellow erect.  Further study does give more subtle differences but you can see how a cursory glance would easily dismiss the Norway Maple as ‘just a sycamore’.

Sycamore and Norway Maple
Norway Maple leaf laid on top of sycamore leaf.
Bud emerging
Norway Maple leaf emerging from the bud.
Norway Maple Flowers
Norway Maple flowers.
Norway Maple Leaf
The same Norway Maple just two days later.

Neither species is native to Britain so that’s where we can add in another maple to the mix but this time one that’s a lot easier to set apart from its cousins and one that Evelyn was far more complimentary about – it is of course the Field Maple (Acer campestre).

Field Maple
Field Maple leaf.

Evelyn said of the Field Maple…

The timber is far superior to beech for all uses of the turner, who seeks it for dishes, cups, trays, trenchers, &c. as the joiner for the tables, inlayings, and for the delicateness of the grain, when the knurrs and nodosities area rarely diapered, which does much advance it’s price: Our turners will work it so thin, that it is almost transparent.

Not a single mention of ‘noxious’, ‘putrefy’ or ‘contaminate’ in sight so I think he liked it a bit more.  Round my area the Field Maple is a staple of the hedgerow so it never reaches its true potential of height but even if it were it would still be much smaller than its two counterparts but even so would be very easy to tell apart at any stage.  Bark – grey-brown and fissured with a slightly corky texture.  Branches – much divided and dense.  Leaves – opposite, up to 12cm long and usually strongly 3-lobed.  Flowers – yellowish green erect.  Again as with the Sycamore and Norway Maple there is much more to research to really fine tune the differences and make your identifications 100% accurate as they always must be when foraging but that isn’t really the purpose of my writing.  The real point is to circle back and ‘be more dog’ – get out there on a regular route but really observe, open your eyes to the magic of everyday things.  The ferns unfurling, flowers opening, colours changing, grasses growing, seeds forming and who knows you might just see something that you never noticed before or just passed off as ‘it’s just…’ and then have a word with yourself too and don’t do it again.

Sources used
The New Sylva – a discourse of forest & orchard trees for the twenty-first century by Gabriel Hemery & Sarah Simblet
Collins Complete Guide to Trees by Paul Sterry

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