DICK WARNER: Sycamores are not a native tree

THE sycamores have come into flower. Dangling yellow tassels high up in branches that are still bare of any leaves.

Over the course of the summer, if we get a summer, they will ripen into samaras, two-winged aircraft that will carry a cargo of seed to spread baby sycamores far and wide. That’s why some people dislike this wonderful tree. It’s just too efficient at propagating itself and ends up being regarded as a weed.

This wasn’t always the case. Writing in 1597 Gerard the herbalist says it is “a stranger to England and only found in the walks and places of pleasure of noblemen”. However, it seems to have arrived in Ireland shortly afterwards as the first definite record we have of them being planted in this country is from Co Derry in 1610.

Sycamores have since been planted so widely all over Europe that it’s hard to work out what their original native range was. But it is clear they are a mountain tree from the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Carpathians and the ridges of high ground that radiate from those mountain ranges. In the wild they seldom grow below an altitude of 300m, which is odd because in Ireland they seldom grow above that altitude. It’s also odd that they should be so tolerant of coastal sites and salt winds considering their inland mountain origin.

They are a member of the maple family which contains about 150 species spread across the northern hemisphere. In fact, they’re the largest of all the maples. They seldom reach an immense height, specimens over 30m are very rare, but will eventually produce a huge, spreading crown on a thick trunk if the conditions are right.

They also seem to be capable of living for a very long time — 1,000 years may be possible, which is greater than any Irish native tree except the yew, but it’s difficult to get good data on this, because in most places where the tree grows it has only been introduced for about 400 years.

All the larger maples are noted for providing fine timber and sycamore is no exception. The wood is hard, blond and lustrous and sometimes produces a wavy grain known as ‘fiddle-back’ because of its popularity with musical instrument makers. But the widespread introduction of sycamore into this country was probably largely driven by the suitability of the timber for the production of ‘treen’. Treen were small household objects made of wood — in particular, plates, bowls, boards and spoons. When metal and pottery were expensive they were important items, but nowadays the one remaining piece of treen in most kitchens is the wooden spoon.

Nature Table

RABBIT (Oryctolagus cuniculus)

Normally the first baby rabbits appear above ground by mid-April but grass growth is very late this year and the rabbits have held back. The only animal you could confuse a rabbit with is a hare but hares are nearly twice the size, more angular in shape and generally reddish-brown in colour, while rabbits are grey — there can be some variation in coat colour. Hares are native animals while rabbits were introduced by the Normans for their meat and fur in the late 1100s. Today wild rabbits are widespread in the countryside, though their preference is for an area with short, soft grass to eat, a light, well-drained soil for digging burrows and some dense cover to hide in if a predator suddenly appears. They live in colonies and tend to be largely nocturnal, though active around dawn and dusk in summer. Where predation is low, such as on some off-shore islands, they are more active during daylight.

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Saturday, March 6, 2021

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