Helicopters – Sunday 13th August, 2023

100s of sycamore seeds are dangling from our two sycamore trees. They have mostly lost any green colour, now light brown, and are in pairs connected at the ‘heads’ with the wings at right angles. We call them helicopters because when picked up in the wind they twirl and fly some distance from the mother tree. There are so many seeds from our trees that we spend much of the spring and summer pulling out the seedlings as they grow so easily. It is why sycamore are such survivors, with so many fertile seeds carried on the wind to new sites.

It is thought, sycamore came to the country around 1500. It was planted on estates, and, once the trees were mature, away went the seeds to colonise new spaces. You can argue fruitlessly whether it is native or not. The question becomes almost political. How long ago did a plants ancestors need to be first here, for it to be regarded as native? Twenty thousand years ago, these islands were mostly covered in ice with the rest as tundra, with no trees apart from dwarf birch. As the ice retreated, wind and birds brought in seeds from the continent. Others came with human traffic, in clothing or imports, or intentionally.

The sycamore is in the acer family, the maples. There must have been a wingless ancestor, common to all the family. A mutant happened, an accidental, that would have had some hint of a wing, enough to give some slight advantage. And a fraction more of this sort survived. Another mutant, or just a few bigger wings in the next generations and a new family is in the making. Tiny advantages add up, bringing bringing about major change over 1000s of years.

Acer pseudoplatanus is the full name, thought originally to come from the Pyrenees and Alps, but its very success makes the sycamore’s origin difficult to tie down. The species name was given as the leaves are similar to the plane tree, those patchy trees which line Earlham Grove. But the sycamore and the plane are not related. Look at the seeds of the two, so different. There’s the helicopters of the sycamore compared with knobbly balls of the plane, like smaller versions of the globe thistle, but greeny yellow. Though, both trees are tolerant of urban pollution which may add to the confusion.

Sycamore’s yellow wood can be made into bowls, spoons and platters, furniture and veneers, In our garden, the tree provides shade and a haven for birds. A few trees such trees are welcome, but they can take over and become an impenetrable thicket.

I look at the buddleia, flowering still, and note the purple flower spikes are at the end of twigs. Evidently, new twigs have to come to keep up the blooms. The buddleia has no problem and would flower on till the chill sets in which halts new growth. Except, we’ll prune it first.

The evening primrose is coming again, its yellow flowers under the Fothergill stand. But it’s the hollyhocks which stand out, yellows and pinks, tall and majestic, if a little snail chewed.

There are autumn signs, the helicopters of course, but some of the vine leaves are going purple. Will those bunches of grapes mature? I have my doubts. The globe thistles are losing their blue colour, going greyish as fertilised flowers becomes seedheads. If they are planets for little princes, they are fading planets, perhaps scorched by climate change, a fate the earth has in store unless we change our habits.

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