Usefulness and services of the tree :
Features and characters of the individual
This tree grew on the edge of the former Boetendael convent orchards. As the only witness of this era, it is now as high as the surrounding residential buildings. Both its historical testimony and its appeal as a part of green space have enabled it to surpass the urbanisation of the area. The ground around it has been dug up several times, reworked, compacted, during neighbouring construction work. These disturbances are undoubtedly the cause of it getting weaker. Nevertheless, it remains standing
A common tree, like thousands in Brussels, this species of maple is the 4th most-planted in the city. However, this one has a certain class… It is one of the few trees listed on the region’s safeguarding list.
You need to take time to really look at this tree as you approach it. Approaching gradually, starting from a distance, you’ll be able to see it in all its surroundings. You can then slowly edge closer. The characteristics that make this tree so special then begin to unfold, little by little, before your very eyes...
From 100 Meters
The tree is neighbourly with the surrounding buildings, but this has not always been the case. At the beginning of the last century, the tree was surrounded by other trees and shrubs in a woodland plot bordering an orchard. To imagine it in its former environment, go to Avenue Bourgmestre Jean Herinckx, a little before the crossing with Avenue Jean Burgers: a gap in the hedge gives you a glimpse of the tree, isolating it slightly from its contemporary urban surroundings.
The site was previously a convent. The environment here has since completely changed. The orchards gave way to the tower blocks surrounding the tree. As a mere spectator in this urban evolution, this maple has lived through all of the building work. This alone, makes it remarkable.
The tree shapes and enhances the landscape, especially mid-season when its foliage changes colour. In spring, it is one of the first to bloom. While the surrounding trees are still bare, this tree is covered with clusters of small yellow-green flowers. In autumn, its foliage turns a yellow-orange. Its organic shapes contrast with the geometric lines of the building façade behind it. Somewhat masking the building, it creates depth and perspective. It adds character to the building. Its lively foliage brings the building to life. Without this tree, the residential block would seem rather dull.
From 40 Metres
Once we have seen the tree framed by its home surroundings, we can get closer and focus on its silhouette. Its structure embodies its history. Deciphering this is easier in winter, when there aren’t many leaves.
It has a very straight trunk. The branches don’t spread out very far, allowing it to share the space with the building that has shot up nearby. There are two types of branches: The upper ones are balanced, branching gradually with very open angles and forming fairly rounded foliage; whereas the lower branches seem more vigorous, extending from the trunk at a more acute angle and rushing towards the light.
From this, the maple appears to have two stories: two chapters in its history. It is as if the tree behaves in two ways, like having two overlapping crowns instead of just one homogenous crown. The upper part is old, having flourished and shaped itself at a time when the surrounding buildings did not exist. The lower crown is newer and vigorous. It formed recently after a mass of large branches were removed to prevent them approaching the building’s balconies. Previously shaded by those large branches, the trunk suddenly found itself bathing in light. It responded vigorously, growing back into the available space and light.
Today, these branches are growing very fast. However, they will gradually slow down as they make the most of the sunny space. They will eventually fill out more, like those higher up the tree. The tree’s crown will then achieve a certain harmony again. This maple just needs time and our faith. There is no need to savagely cut off shoots. They just need support, so that they don’t grow too fast or disturb the neighbours. Giving the tree the opportunity to regrow its lower branches will also create a nice spot to sit under: a cosy little place in the park by the residences.
From 10 Metres
To continue getting to know this tree, get a little closer (1) and gaze at it from head to toe.
*(1)(without hopping over the small hedge of the residence – the photos below allow you to see the tree as if you were stood at the foot of the tree)
At the foot of the tree, the soil is relatively flat and then slopes to form a kind of embankment. This difference in height is a trace left from the building’s old construction site. The soil around the tree moved when the neighbouring building shot up at its side. Underground, away from our gaze, the tree is trying to adapt to the soil having been upheaved. Some roots were cut when the building work took place, and those have probably now died. Like with the new lower branches, the maple needed to grow new roots in the soil to adjust to the new environment.
Just above, on the lawn outside the residential building, slanted foundations seem to come out of the ground from the trunk. These are buttress roots. The tree produces more wood here to reinforce its structure. Instead of being straight, it presents a corkscrew-like movement inscribed in its bark. It’s like someone has tried to twist and turn the tree in on itself. This unique appearance has been caused over the years by wind, as an area of turbulence was created between the buildings. When the wind continually blows the crown in the same direction, it induces a twisting motion in the tree. To avoid breaking, the tree reacts to this mechanical stress by strengthening its wood where necessary. This adaptability is often found in sweet chestnut and horse chestnut trees.
The trunk has been quite distorted higher up; this is often the case with maple trees, especially when they grow fast. The bumps below the new branches are bulges covering the wounds of previously cut branches. The tree is producing more wood, so the wound has almost vanished. From time to time, small cracks are still visible in the centre of these bulges. This indicates an old branch coming out of the bark.
This tree’s cohabitation with residents hasn’t always been cheerful. Those fond of maples would love to reach out from their balcony to touch the foliage they see from their living rooms. They might have dreamed of stepping off their balconies to sit reading a book on a large lower branch, but these branches are now no longer there. Other residents hate the tree: its foliage blocks light into some homes; birds living on it wake up too early; its falling leaves make the lawn look neglected; and, most importantly, some fear that the tree will fall on the building one day. Fortunately, due to its listed status, this tree is closely monitored by municipal and regional authorities.
It is common in the city for trees to bring about conflicting feelings. Buildings, roads and car parks get built too close to some green giants, which were living in these locations long before. Sometimes young trees are also planted too close to shared walls. The result is that the tree looks out of place.
Under the tree
Imagine that you are leaning against the trunk and you are activating all of your senses. The bark peels off into small, very thin, geometric pieces underneath your fingertips. It reveals the tree’s brown trunk. It might remind you of the more-well-known plane trees with tricolour bark; these also peel but they have a white trunk.
Looking above your head, you see the leaves are shaped like hands – still somewhat reminiscent of the plane tree. However, the webbed leaves on this maple are much smaller, with only three leaf veins and rounded teeth around the edges. The tree loses a lot of leaves in winter, but not all of them; plane trees are left completely bare.
In autumn, small helicopters swirl in the air before your very eyes. As they are scattered in the wind, try to catch these flying fruits just like children do. Examining them in your hand, you can see two seeds stuck together with one wing each. You can split them open and stick them on the top of your nose to look like a rhinoceros horn.
If you could climb the maple tree like in Italo Calvino's Baron in the Trees, you could probably see the life of the building’s inhabitants on their balconies. The tree never ceases to serve them: motionless, silent, discreet, efficient, calm and modest...
Finally, at the foot of the tree, you can picture the roots growing straight under your feet. The main roots sink deep into the ground whereas the fine ones stretch out in all directions, just below the ground, right up to where we began this article.
This portrait is enriched with:
- an illustration from the Belgian Federal State Collection on permanent loan to the Meise Botanical Garden. See attached. Thanks to the library (heritage collection) for this contribution. https://www.plantentuinmeise.be/en/home/
-and a series of photos of trees from the BelTrees' collection paired with this maple tree.