Derek – Friday 16th April

The sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) leaves are just coming out and with them the flowers. The latter are green which might lead one to think they are wind pollinated, as insect pollinated flowers are usually colourful. But it’s nectar that matters most. That’s what insects come for, and the sycamore flowers have it. Colour isn’t everything.

The sex life of the sycamore is confusing. The flowers have both sexes, stamens and ovary, but in practice function as either male or female. Usually, one of the sexes will open before the other to prevent self pollination. Which one gets going first can vary from year to year. Confusing as that sounds, the sex is successful. We get a lot of seeds.

They get everywhere. We’ll be hoeing them out for the next few weeks. Ground left for a few seasons round here could end up a thicket of sycamore saplings. If brambles or Japanese knotweed don’t stake first claim.

The wings of the sycamore seeds are at right angles, while in the Norway maple they are almost horizontal. West Ham Park has a number of different acers, very hard to tell apart without a magnifying glass delving deep into flower parts. Wikipedia lists more than 160 species.

The sycamore arrived in this country around 1500. Likely grown for its use in making furniture and musical instruments such as the violin. Do we now consider it a native tree? All our ‘native’ trees arrived from the continent as these islands were mostly covered in ice in the last ice age, ending around 10,000 years ago. The glacier came down as far as London, and south of that was tundra, too cold for trees. Native in botanical terms for the UK is a relative term, as few of our plants have been here more than 10,000 years, other than mosses and lichens.

The species name of the sycamore, pseudoplatanus, means false plane. Though the leaves are similar, the plane and the sycamore are not related. It’s flowers that determine relationships among flowering plants, not the leaves, nor the fact that two plants are trees.

Our sycamore is not that old, I’d guess 30 to 50 years. Its grey smooth bark is reminiscent of beech, but will become rougher and more scaly as it ages. If it ages. We’ll be here at least until 2025, and once we are gone, the site will likely be used for housing, and if so, as we know from the site next door when they sawed down the 130 year old yew, that will be the end of the sycamore.

Our tadpoles are all over the pond, though the stage end is favoured because that’s where the bulk of the spawn was. The garden reopens on Friday, 23 April, and the tadpoles will be popular. They mesmerise us. We are impressed they go from flapping blobs to frogs over the next three months.

A rival to them will be the pink flowering cherry at the front of the garden. It will be an absolute mass of blossom in a week. But it will last only about 10 days, while the tadpoles take us through to July. Their numbers will diminish but we have had record spawn this year, so should see more survivors.

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