Features and characters of the individual
Sycamore trees: facts and stories
Plane trees and sycamore trees can look deceptively similar from a distance. Even from up close, their ‘peeling’ bark and hand-like lobed leaves could be confused for one another. The Latin name for sycamore trees (Acer pseudoplatanus) even calls them a ‘faux plane’. In French, the London plane tree is also called ‘maple-leaved plane’.
So, how can you tell sycamore trees and plane trees apart? Sycamores have brown bark, which flakes off in small, very thin patches with geometric, quite angular shapes. This reveals the tree’s brown trunk underneath. In contrast, the bark of plane trees flakes off in larger, more curved patches to reveal a creamy coloured trunk underneath. You can also compare the leaves: the palmately lobed leaves on sycamore trees are smaller than those of planes. The indentations around the leaf edge are also more rounded, rather than serrated. Sycamores lose a lot of their leaves in winter, but not all of them; plane trees on the other hand shed all their leaves. In total, there are up to seven ways to tell these two species apart, including differences in their leaves, buds and fruit. See if you can spot them all while you’re out in the field!
Did you know?
Without sycamore trees, the world would have a lot less music! The wood from this tree vibrates and resonates, meaning that it has excellent acoustic properties for instruments like guitars. It’s also used in cellos, double basses, violins, etc., so the string section of orchestras are forever indebted to this tree! Some woodwind instruments also make use of sycamore wood, such as bassoons and some types of flute. Some percussion instruments can be made with wood too, for example drums and their sticks.
Valued for its sound, sycamore wood is also known for its strength, flexibility, hardness, and also its beauty. For carpenters and cabinet makers, this wood is one of their favourites to work with. The wood is satin-soft and pale like ivory, with a beautifully smooth and fine grain. It is a dream when it comes to workability, transforming into toys, kitchen utensils and furniture quite easily.
All of this means that sycamore trees have a discreet presence in many of life’s most pleasant moments: when we listen to music, when we play, and when we enjoy cooking and eating.
The benefits of sycamore trees
Sycamores deliver some beneficial services in our towns and cities. They absorb very large volumes of air pollution, filter fine particles from the air quite well, and also produce oxygen. The large, diffuse shade cast by these common trees creates a milder climate of pleasant, cooler air in the surrounding area.
They also tend to the soil as well, with their roots aerating deeply and their fallen leaves quickly turning to humus when they are left to decompose.
The flowers on these trees also contain abundant nectar, serving as a source of food for bees and other pollinators –which are essential for all our futures!
How to recognise a sycamore tree
arranged in opposite pairs on the branch, with deep indents creating 5 lobes (palmately lobed, looking like a hand); fall from the tree in autumn (deciduous)
green top sides and grey/white undersides in spring/summer; yellowy orange and red in autumn; and no foliage in winter
double-winged samara (nut/seed with two wings), each shaped like a rhinoceros horn
brown; detaches in small, angular flakes
Specifics about this tree
Sycamore trees have almost become commonplace in the city: there are thousands of them planted in Brussels! They are the 4th most planted species in the region and the Xst/nd/th most planted in Ixelles. (demander à Christophe) With its trunk measuring 3m in circumference and its height at 15m, this specimen is in the top 20 trees in the region in terms of size. The thing that is truly remarkable about this tree, though, is its unusual silhouette in comparison with the park’s more-graphic design. The tree overlooks a very ‘square’ space, with its curved shape and large, windy branches creating a contrast with the geometric lines of the neatly trimmed, neighbouring hedges. Towering over so many hyper-controlled plants, this sycamore tree looks strangely alive in comparison. Its trunk divides into two huge main branches, like a giant fork. It looks like two trunks might have fused together, as the trunk has a long slit along it. It’s like we’re looking at a single tree with two bodies. This funny-looking silhouette reveals part of its history. When it was younger and more fragile, this tree lost its ‘head’, either due to excessive pruning or by branches breaking under the weight of birds. The two main branches that we see today took over from the main stem, subsequently growing more upright towards the light. The tree’s root network is strong. It is even pushing up some of the path, but it shouldn’t cause too much more damage because sycamore roots tend to slant downwards, deep into the earth. To appreciate just how vast the root network probably is, imagine the tree’s above-ground shape being mirrored underground.
(Story and photos created by Priscille Cazin- Sylvolutions)
This portrait is:
- Enriched with an illustration from the Belgian Federal State Collection on permanent loan to the Meise Botanical Garden.
- An initiative of Christos Doulkeridis, Mayor of Ixelles , Audrey Lhoest, portfolio holder for Environment, Green Spaces and Planting, and Tourism and the Ixelles Communal executive