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December 2008

A wintry walk on Whitwell Moor

Last Friday afternoon I went for a walk around Whitwell Moor. As well as making some bark rubbings, I took some photographs of the winter scenery.

Birch tree on silhouetted against the winter sun.

A common ash (Fraxinus excelsior) sapling on Long Lane seen with leaves on the 5th of October and without on the 28th of November (Friday). Pretty cool, huh?

A small stand of birch silhouetted by the afternoon sun.

More silhouetting! A Scots pine surrounded by other trees: birches, larches, and more pines.

A frosty beech leaf blown out of Millstones Wood.

The Lonely Oak on Whitwell Moor at twilight. This post from January has a contemporary photo of the Lonely Oak with links to three other photos from spring and summer 2007.

Posted in Gone for a walk

Deadwood at twilight (6th December 2008)

I took a walk with my father yesterday afternoon. We followed near enough the same route as my walk two Fridays ago. The weather was near enough the same too, the only difference being it wasn’t quite so cold. I took the following photos in the space of fifteen minutes between four and half past, not long after the sun had set.

At the trig point end of Millstones Wood, as it peters out, there is group of stunted larches and pines. There are a couple of skeletons too, ghosts of trees that died auld lang syne, but whether they were larches or pines, or one of each, I do not know. They are the subjects of the first five photos.

Can you make out the face of a devil in the middle of the knotted deadwood silhouetted against the sky? It’s pretty freaky, man.

Away from the stunted trees now, a big pine blocked out what little light was still afforded by the sky.

The distinctive feathery outline of a beech, and in the background the moors of the Peak District.

P.S. This month's edition of the Festival of the Trees is up at A Neotropical Savanna. Go read! I have volunteered to host February's edition here at treeblog!

Posted in Gone for a walk

Sycamore in Britain: native or non-native?

Sunny young sycamore leaves from a walk up Blackford Hill, Edinburgh, on the 3rd of May 2007.

Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus L.) is a large deciduous tree common throughout the British Isles. It may be known in Scotland as the plane. Foreign readers of this blog should not confuse the British sycamore, with which I am concerned, with different species growing around the world which are also commonly called sycamore or plane.

The popular view is that sycamore is not a native of Britain. However, I recently read an article from a 1987 issue of the Quarterly Journal of Forestry by Esmond Harris 1, who puts forward a case for sycamore being a British native.

Harris begins with a little digression. The English used to call sycamore “the great maple” or the “mock plane tree”, and in fact the taxonomic name means maple (Acer) masquerading (pseudo) as a plane (platanus), as sycamore leaves are similar to those of planes such as the London plane (Platanus x hispanica) and the Oriental plane (Platanus orientalis). Harris writes that the modern common name “seems to have come from monks returning to Europe who saw its similarity to “sycomorus” of the Bible which is the sycamore fig (Figus sycomorus) of the Middle East”.

Back on the topic of sycamore’s provenance, Harris states the popular view is the tree was introduced to Britain by the Romans, but disputes this by arguing that there is no evidence for this “and anyway, why should they introduce a tree for which they would have no apparent use?” The Romans are known to have introduced useful trees, such as the sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa), which was grown for its nuts.

Harris dismisses the theory that sycamore was introduced from France in the Middle Ages on the grounds that, even though many writers have referred to this, none provided any evidence. Sycamore’s natural distribution in France does not reach the English Channel, a fact, Harris writes, used to support the non-native theory. Further support for this theory comes from the lack of sycamore pollen in ancient deposits, although Harris argues that sycamore pollen being gelatinous, it “could not be expected to preserve well” compared with “the hard pollen grain of most trees and shrubs”.

“However, with no positive evidence for introduction” Harris writes, “my own view is that sycamore may well be a native because it grows so well all over Britain, even in the most inhospitable places, and regenerates so freely.” I think this is a rather shaky foundation on which to base a theory of British nativity, for there are known introduced species that grow well and regenerate freely all over Britain (e.g. Rhododendron ponticum) while there are also known British natives that are confined to certain localities or habitats (e.g. wild service tree, Sorbus torminalis).

Harris provides examples of references to sycamore from the Middle Ages: a fourteenth century carving of a sycamore leaf in St. Frideswide’s shrine in Christchurch, Oxford; a written record in Turner’s Herbal in 1551; and a mention by Chaucer in Canterbury Tales, written about 1380, who was once a forester. But if sycamore was introduced by the Romans or during the Middle Ages, then why shouldn’t it appear in carvings or books from this time?

The next piece of evidence Harris uses to try to support his theory is also rather flimsy. “Unfortunately the wood of sycamore is so like maple that it cannot easily be distinguished in old wooden artefacts, furniture and musical instruments, where it is usually referred to as maple anyway. However the native field maple [Acer campestre] is too small to have been a significant timber tree.” Actually field maple can reach a height of 25 m (~80 ft) and a girth (circumference) of 3 m (~10 ft) at breast height 2. According to Wikipedia, Rushforth’s Trees of Britain and Europe 3 describes field maple wood as hard and strong and used for furniture and flooring.

Harris’ case for sycamore being native to Britain ends with a whimper. “The question needs to be asked, “what is the positive evidence that sycamore is an exotic in Britain?” After all, it is the only supposed non-native for which there is no evidence of introduction. We know how all the other introduced trees came here.” Not knowing how sycamore was introduced is no argument for saying that it wasn’t introduced! The rest of the article is rather interesting and goes on to describe the growth of sycamore in Britain, and its usefulness in terms of timber, amenity, shelter, and biodiversity.

Harris didn’t manage to convince me that sycamore is a British native. I’m sticking with the popular view that it is an introduced species, albeit a fully naturalised one nowadays. From the Royal Forestry Society of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’s site:

[Sycamore] is not native to Britain. Its real home is high ground in southern and central Europe extending northwards to Paris and east to the Caucasus.

When and who first introduced sycamore to Britain is uncertain. It may have been the Romans but it was still scarce here in the 16th century and has only really become established over the last 200 years.

As an epilogue to Harris’s article, there was a response by M. P. Denne 4 (of the Department of Forestry and Wood Science, University College of North Wales) published in the next but one issue of the Quarterly Journal of Forestry. Denne writes that she has “not yet found any sycamore amongst the fragments of charcoal that I have been asked to identify from a number of Neolithic sites in North Wales”. The second half of her letter is a good response to Harris, so I’ll give Denne the last say in this matter.

Judging from the uses they seem to have made of the different timbers on these sites, Neolithic people must have had considerable knowledge of the wood properties of different tree species. Since sycamore can produce good quality timber on a wide variety of sites, and the wood is strong and easy to work, one would have expected it to have been in frequent use if it had been widely available at the time. As Esmond Harris points out, sycamore regenerates freely and grows well all over Britain, even on inhospitable sites. So if it was native to Britain, is there any reason why it might have been relatively rare in Neolithic times?

1 Harris, E. (1987) The Case for Sycamore. Quarterly Journal of Forestry, 81 (1), 32-36.
3 Mitchell, A. (1978). Trees of Britain & Northern Europe. Collins Field Guide, HarperCollinsPublishers.
4 Rushforth, K. (1999). Trees of Britain and Europe. Collins.
5 Denne, M. P. (1987). Is Sycamore Native to Britain? (Correspondence). Quarterly Journal of Forestry, 81 (2), 201.

Posted in Miscellany

Five favourite photos from 2007

As 2008 draws to a close, I thought it would be nice to look back on some of my favourite photos of the year. Then I realised that I never did this for 2007, so perhaps I ought to cover that year first, and look back on 2008 next week. This is good time to mention that I have been going through the archives and replacing a lot of the old lo-res (500px by 375px) images with higher resolution copies (1024px by 768px). To view the full-size versions, just click on the photo to be taken to its Flickr photo page, and then click on the ALL SIZES button (above the top left-hand corner of the photo).

To be included on this most exclusive of lists, each photograph had to satisfy the criteria of 1) having been taken by myself during 2007 and 2) subsequently featuring on treeblog while 3) being one of my stand-out faves. I limited myself to just five, and I had a hard job on narrowing it down. But here they, are in chronological order!

3rd May 2007 Yes, this photo did feature in the previous post (an unfortunate coincidence), but it originally featured in a post entitled ‘Blackford Hill gallivanting’. It was a sunny day at the end of my third year at Edinburgh when I photographed these new sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) leaves on a walk up Blackford Hill, which was my territory of choice back then as I lived so close by. I love how the sun highlights every detail of the tender young leaves.

16th June 2007 I took this photograph on a visit to Derwent Reservoir - the towers of the stunning dam wall are seen in the background. I love how the sunlight catches some of the hawthorn leaves.

16th August 2007 Just before I started my final year at Edinburgh, one of my classes went on a field trip to the Italian Dolomites, part of the Alps. It was a brilliant trip in every respect, and the scenery was most conducive to photography. In fact, three of these five favourite photos were taken on that trip! This photograph was taken on our first proper day, when Bruno, a local forester or park official, acted as our guide on a walk up a valley. I have never been anywhere so beautiful in all my life, and this photo is a good one in that it gives some sense of the enormity of the mountains.

24th August 2007 We visited this stunning locale twice. Another place so beautiful words or photos cannot do proper justice. I have got to go back one day, and that day can not come soon enough! The lake is called Lago di Calaita, and off this photo to the right is an old rockslide that we climbed up to reach a higher part of forest.

24th August 2007 The sky at night as photographed from our accommodation for the last three nights of the trip: two log cabins in the middle of nowhere perched halfway up a mountainside! It was really pitch black, but a long exposure brought out detail that the human eye couldn’t see. The remoteness from any kind of built-up area meant that the stars were very prominent, lending the sky a quality I haven’t been able to see in Britain. This photo featured in a post entitled Field trip to the Italian Alps (Part One). The previous couple featured in Part Two.

It’s funny how three of those five photos came in the space of eight days in the Dolomites. It might be something to do with associating the positive memories of the field trip with the photographs. No winter photos made it onto the list. I haven’t picked out five favourites from 2008 yet, but I wonder if any wintry pix will make it into those. Regardless, I can’t see the list being dominated by one trip!

Posted in Miscellany

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