Sycamore and other woody members of the Sapindaceae or Maple family.

The pendulous flowers of the Sycamore in early spring with fresh palmate leaves.
(All pictures by Matt Summers

The Sapindaceae is a large family (number 77 in Stace) but in Britain it is represented by only “3 genera which all have a totally different appearance” (Stace, 370). He mentions Acer, Aesculus and Koelreuteria. Only one of those genera and one species is native and the genus Acer is what gives the Sapindacea it’s common name, ‘the Maple family’.

In the Wild Flower Key it is still called the Aceraceae and only the 3 most common Acers are mentioned here, while the Horse Chestnut, now also in the Sapindaceae, has his ‘old’ own family here too; the Hippocastanaceae.

There are some 200 species of Acer throughout the North Temperate zone but especially in Asia. Many species of Maple are grown as ornamentals here particularly those with spectacular autumn foliage. (from Medicinal Flora by Julian Barker)

Stace mentions the six better known species but only Acer campestre or Field Maple is a real native.

The sycamore can form a large specimen tree!

The sycamore or Acer pseudoplatanus

has been introduced and has been very successfully established as one of the most common trees in many varied habitats, here on the British Isles as well as the rest of Europe.

It is so successful that it is also disliked greatly by many people. The tree produces lots of seeds known as ‘helicopters’ which can germinate en masse in the most awkward places!

Fortunately it has many good qualities in that it is a beautiful tree in its own right and can grow even successfully near the sea where other trees or plants would struggle to survive!

 A. pseudoplatanus ‘Brilliantissimum‘ is notable for the bright salmon-pink colour of the young foliage and is the only sycamore cultivar to have gained the Royal Horticultural Society‘s Award of Garden Merit. A rare weeping form with dangling branches, A. pseudoplatanus var. pendulum, was first sold by Knight & Perry’s exotic nursery in Chelsea, England before 1850 when the name was published by W.H. Baxter in the Supplement to Loudon’s Hortus Brittanicus, but no specimens of this cultivar are known to survive.

I found a very good website from the Woodland Trust so the below information is mainly copied from their site in a much edited form and with a few additions as well. Their website also has a very entertaining video showing the tree’s changes throughout the season.

First of all: the botanical name of sycamore, Acer pseudoplatanus, means ‘like a plane tree’. Although sycamore is an Acer and not closely related to plants in the Platanus genus, the leaves are superficially similar.

Sycamore may have been introduced to the UK, first in England, by the Romans. However, other reports suggest it was introduced to the UK in the Tudor era around the 1500s. More widespread planting occurred in the 1700s and the earliest reports of the species naturalising in the UK date from the mid 1800s. 

Mythology and symbolism

There is very little folklore associated with sycamore, as it is an introduced species. However, in Wales, sycamore trees were used in the traditional craft of making love spoons’. In some parts of the UK the winged seeds are known as ‘helicopters’, and used in flying competitions and model-making by children.

Welsh carved wooden lovespoon with hearts, lock and wheel. There are five design elements, three hearts which also form the bowl and the ring of the spoon. Between these are a wheel and a padlock.

Welsh lovespoon with hearts, lock and wheel (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Uses to us:

  • Sycamore timber is hard and strong, pale cream and with a fine grain. It is used for making furniture and kitchenware as the wood does not taint or stain the food. 
  • A special mention goes to Love Spoons, see an example on the right. Much information can be found on Angel Woodcraft website.
  • Mature trees are extremely tolerant of wind, so are often planted in coastal and exposed areas, as a wind break. They are also tolerant of pollution and are therefore planted in towns and cities.

Uses to Wildlife

  • Sycamore is attractive to aphids and therefore a variety of their predators, such as ladybirds, hoverflies and birds.
  • The leaves are eaten by caterpillars of a number of moths, including the sycamore moth, plumed prominent and maple prominent.
  • The flowers provide a good source of pollen and nectar to bees and other insects, and the seeds are eaten by birds and small mammals. 

Acer campestre or Field Maple

is our only true native maple and also often planted in hedges or occasionally as solitary trees. The leaves turn a beautiful rich yellow in autumn.

The field maple is also grown as an ornamental tree in parks and large gardens and  has gained the Royal Horticultural Society‘s Award of Garden Merit

Over 30 cultivars of Acer campestre are known, selected for their foliage or habit, or occasionally both; several have been lost to cultivation.

Again more information below of the Woodland Trust as well as a very entertaining video can be watched there.

Mythology and symbolism

There is little mythology and symbolism associated with the field maple, but in parts of Europe it was believed that maple branches hung around a doorway could prevent bats from entering the building. The herbalist, Culpepper, recommended maple leaves and bark to strengthen the liver.

Uses to us:

  • Field maple produces the hardest, highest density timber of all European maples. It is a warm creamy-brown colour with a silky shine.
  • Traditional uses includes wood-turning, carving and making musical instruments, particularly harps and violin cases.
  • The wood polishes well and is often used as a veneer. 

Medicinal uses:

The Field Maple is less active than the introduced but now naturalized Sycamore.

  • However the sap may be tapped for sugar in the spring and the leaves have been taken as an astringent tea.
  • The bark is febrifuge but very quickly becomes emetic. The triterpenoid saponin from A. negundo, the Box Elder, has been shown to possess marked anti-tumour activity.

Uses to wildlife

  • Field maple is attractive to aphids and therefore their predators, including many species of ladybird, hoverfly and bird.
  • The leaves are eaten by the caterpillars of several species of moth, including the sycamore moth, the mocha, the maple pug, the small yellow wave, the prominent and the maple prominent.
  • The flowers provide nectar and pollen for bees and birds, and small mammals eat the fruits. 

The flowers of the Field Maple provide nectar and pollen for bees.

Aesculus hippocastanum or Horse Chestnut

A lot more information can be found about the Horse Chestnut or Aesculus hippocastanum

Aesculus hippocastanum is native to a small area in the Pindus Mountains mixed forests and Balkan mixed forests of South East Europe. However, it can be found in many parts of Europe as far north as Gästrikland in Sweden, as well as in many parks and cities in the United States and Canada.

The flowers close up are truly exotic!

The large recalcitrant seeds, especially those that are young and fresh, are slightly poisonous, containing alkaloid saponins and glucosides. Although not dangerous to touch, they cause sickness when eaten; consumed by horses, they can cause tremors and lack of coordination.

Though the seeds are said to repel spiders there is little evidence to support these claims. The presence of saponin may repel insects but it is not clear whether this is effective on spiders.[11]

Horse-chestnuts have been threatened by the leaf-mining moth Cameraria ohridella, whose larvae feed on horse chestnut leaves. The moth was described from Macedonia where the species was discovered in 1984 but took 18 years to reach Britain.

Some very good information also again can be found on the Woodland Trust website for example one of the several theories why it is called the Horse Chestnut:

the leaf stalks leave a scar on the twig when they fall, which resembles an inverted horse shoe with nail holes. This association with horses could explain why conkers used to be ground up and fed to horses to relieve them of coughs, and could be the origin of the tree’s name.

It is rarely found in woodland, but is a common sight in parks, gardens, streets and village greens. Horse chestnut was first introduced from Turkey in the late 16th century and widely planted in the UK.

Mythology and symbolism

There is little folklore associated with the tree – probably due to it being an introduced species. However, games of conkers have different rules in different parts of the country, which have their own jargon and often require the repeating of rhymes or rituals to decide who goes first.

Uses to us:

  • The most famous use of horse chestnut is in the game of conkers. The first record of the game is from the Isle of Wight in 1848. 
  • Horse chestnut timber is a pale creamy white to light brown with a smooth, soft, fine texture. It’s not very strong and is therefore not used commercially, but its soft texture makes it ideal for carving.
  • Other uses of the conkers include horse medicines, as additives in shampoos and as a starch substitute. 
  • Chemicals extracted from conkers can be used to treat strains and bruises.

Medicinal Uses:

A remedy of restricted but nevertheless valuable application. Must be used internally with great care. There are various readings of ‘horse’; most of them imply a sense that these ‘conkers’ are, unlike sweet chestnuts which they resemble, not fit for human consumption. Medicinal use, therefore, requires supervised care and controlled dosage.

Apart from Dr. Bach’s use of the Red Horse Chestnut (A. carnea), Horse Chestnut is the only species used in medicine.

Action: Astringent and tonic to vein-walls: anti-thrombotic. Anti-pyretic.

Uses: Varicose veins, Haemorrhoids. Phlebitis. Thrombophlebitis. Has been recommended for pelvic congestion and inflammation, including prostatitis. 

I have used a product called Horse Chestnut complex by ‘Nature’s Best’ which has not only Horse Chestnut extract but also contains Butcher’s Broom & Grape Seed + Rutin Extracts against my varicose veins.

It seems to work!

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