Features and characters of the individual
Sycamore trees: facts and stories
Are sycamores a symbol of terror and fear, or of life?
In Ancient Greek mythology, maple trees like sycamores were associated with Ares, the god of war, probably because of the multiple points on their leaves. They were also linked to Phobos, the god of fear, perhaps because of the blood red colouring of their leaves in autumn. The infamous Trojan Horse was also said to be made of maple wood, which adds cunning to the list of symbolic associations. Helping to overcome a fruitless 10-year siege of Troy, maples led to the city’s destruction in fire and blood.
This terrifying reputation has since evolved though: today, all around the world, maple trees of all kinds are seen as symbols of life! These trees nourish the earth with their leaves and feed humans with their sweet sap (used to make delicious maple syrup). They also brighten up the autumn season with their striking colours. In Japan and Canada, people eagerly await the spectacular show put on by maple trees each year.
In Japan, maple trees are considered sacred. Sometimes they are planted near temples. In a very old legend, five deities are said to live within a maple tree growing on the back of a majestic golden deer.
Did you know?
Maples are real acrobats: they are some of the best when it comes to using the wind to disperse their seeds. The seeds are joined together in pairs, each with their own wing. If you take one in your hand, you’ll see that they look a little bit like a boomerang. The wings have a special design: a hard rib on one side for cutting through the air, and a sail-like structure on the other side for helping the seed glide further distances. This pair of winged seeds is called a double-winged samara. After falling off the tree branch, they spin in the air like mini helicopters, travelling anywhere from 10m away to 100km!
Maples aren’t the only trees to disperse their seeds using the wind (anemochory): planes, limes, willows, poplars, ashes and others also use similar methods. Through evolution, each of these trees have developed their own strategy for seed dispersal. Each type of tree landed on a slightly differently shaped seed wing for catching the wind, be that in the shape of mini helicopters, parachutes, kites, weathervanes, or other structures. Engineers have always had numerous references in nature to study and learn from!
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 are quite common in the city, but originally this species grew in forests. This particular specimen seems to call back to this history.
This tree is surrounded by others, forming their own mini forest. In this group of trees, the sycamore is the one that catches everyone’s eye. The huge trunk soars straight up into the sky, clearly surpassing all its neighbours and unfurling its crown 30m in the air. Having found the perfect spot here in a small valley with rich, moist soil, the tree has been able to grow to its full potential. In autumn, all of its fallen leaves accumulate at its base, where they are decomposed by a multitude of microorganisms and ultimately transformed into humus. This supplies all the nutrients that the tree needs.
This tree’s positioning is also perfect for its human visitors, as the path passes by the tree at branch-height – which allows us to take a closer look at the branches, leaves and seeds. In spring and summer, this tree’s leaves stretch out with five lobes, looking similar to hands. At the end of summer when they start to turn yellowy orange, they are impossible to miss. The tree’s clusters of flying samaras are visible during autumn. When they swirl around in the wind like mini helicopters, children and adults alike can have fun trying to catch them. Split them in half and stick one half on your nose: you’ll look like a rhino!
In winter, the tree’s large buds can be seen on the branches: they are apple green in colour and have a scaled, ovoid shape, similar to a cone. If you look at the tip of one of these buds, you’ll see that the shape also looks similar to an origami chicken.
(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