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Maple and Sycamore Genus: Acer An article from "The Trees Of Old England" by Leo H. Grindon

Maple and Sycamore Genus: Acer by Leo Hartley Grindon; Previously a Lecturer on Botany at the Royal School of Medicine, Manchester. Author of "Life: its Nature, Varieties, and Phenomena;" "British and Garden Botany;" " The Little Things of Nature;" "Echoes in Plant and Flower Life," and others.

Picture of the Maple and Sycamore Genus: Acer

Maple and Sycamore Genus: Acer A Sketch of the aspects, associations and uses of Maple and Sycamore Genus: Acer which constitute the forests and give effect to the scenery of Great Britain.


JUST as men have their periods of worldly success, or of public honour, or of fame in art or in literature, at various ages (showing that there is no necessary connection between the number of birthdays and the hour of triumph), so is it with the special glory or beauty of trees, considered in relation to their annual history: some, that is to say, are most charming at the time of their earliest leaf, the beech to wit; others look best when the foliage is mature; others when they are in blossom; others, again, when the fruit is ripe. The maple and the sycamore belong to a section which appeals to us most powerfully when the flowering is over, and the seed vessels, fully formed, but still only incipient, begin to display themselves among the green. For though pretty in their way, and conspicuous from their abundance, at all events in the sycamore, the flowers of these two trees make a very trifling show; while in the figure of the leaves, in the ripened fruit, and even in the autumnal tinting of the former, there is nothing by which they would at once be singled out from the mass. Look at them, however, about the time that the laburnums have ceased their rain of gold, when the ferns are fast unrolling, and "the first rose of summer, sweet blooming alone," steps forth in the hedgerow like a planet in the evening sky, and whatever they were before, now they seem decked in every part with lively bloom. The colour and the gaiety are given by the clusters of rudimentary fruit, which in the maple is brownish-red, and in the sycamore pinky-yellow. Sometimes the display is delayed a little; but the fact remains the same that these two trees make more show during the period of gestation than during any other portion of their active life. By the peculiar form of the fruit, they are at once distinguished also from every other kind of tree which grows, either wild or as a colonist, in Great Britain. Instead of some sort of nut or acorn, like that of the oak; instead of a cone, or a catkin, or a berry, or anything of the apple form, these two produce a curious fruit, technically termed a double samara. Originally, so far as can be gathered from the use of the word by Columella, this term was applied to the fruit of the elm-tree. The application is now extended; all fruits of structure similar to that of the elm (the little seed-like fruits, for example, contained in the quasi-cone of the birch-tree) being classed as samaras. The main distinction in the maple and sycamore is the growing of the samaras in couples, instead of singly.

The samara is a one-celled and one seeded, dry, and indehiscent fruit, provided with a long or broad membranous wing, which enables the wind to waft it far away. Hence the frequency with which trees producing fruits of this nature are found perched aloft upon old church towers and castle walls, where they compete for the monarchy with trees that have had their seeds conveyed thither by birds. While young, these wing-like parts are semi-translucent; and on being held between the eye and the light, show a network of veins. In old age, when beginning to dry up, they become elegantly reticulated, and in the depth of winter it is not uncommon to find them reduced to the condition of skeletons. Capital toys are they, too, for children. A properly ripened samara of the common sycamore (easily known to be so by the roundness and solidity of the seed at the end), thrown up into the air, spins and gyrates during its descent to the ground with a rapidity that baffles the attempt to follow. It seems like some queer insect in circular and downward flight; and when many are thrown up at once, the busy wheeling becomes quite an entertainment. The seeds of the conifers, when provided with the usual wing, similarly circle downwards. A familiar natural law is, of course, the explanation of this curious spinning. At present we care to notice it only as an illustration of the pretty charities with which nature abounds, the child having its simple plaything provided, just as the philosopher has noble ideas suggested, and the pious man happy reflections. Few would suppose, until they come to be reckoned up, how many of these little playthings our boys and girls manage to find. The round, white head of the dandelion, from which we blew the little ships into the aerial sea, reckoning time, as they sailed away, which the dial was never asked, this is but one of a thousand toys that at the same moment are miracles of beauty, inside as well as outside. Well may we say "inside" in respect of the sycamore seeds, for these, if carefully cut open when quite or nearly ripe, present one of the prettiest spectacles in the world. Lined with the softest and whitest silk, in the centre lies, doubled up, the rudiment of the future tree; not a simple mass of albuminous kernel, as in the nut, but a couple of perfectly -formed green leaves, resembling little strips of green ribbon, so folded and involved that to separate them without fracture, is a matter of difficulty. The hinge-like point of union is the actual embryo; these two green thongs are the cotyledons or " seed-leaves," which parts, in the seed of a plant, occupy the place and fulfil the purpose of the mother's bosom with regard to her infant. As soon as the embryo awakes to active life, these pretty cotyledons, charged with tender food, become the main source of its nourishment, and upon these it depends until the growth of the root and ascending plumule enables it to forage in the earth and atmosphere.

The celebrated Genevese naturalist, Charles Bonnet, was the first to point out this beautiful and expressive analogy; to-day it is recognised universally that the cotyledons of the seed are the vegetable mammae. So close and striking at every point is the agreement of the idea of the plant with that of human nature! The question, in truth, is not so much what may be the likeness between man and the trees, but what is the difference between them! How hard even to speak of a tree except in terms first framed to denote the members of our own bodies! The main pillar is the "trunk," the branches are the "arms;" in the foliage we have, poetically, the "tresses;" the sap-vessels are the "veins;" and in the end, when a name is wanted for the organs of the kindliest office of all, because in charity so sweet, see how soon and accurately by transference from woman! Unable, from the nature of its organization, to feed its offspring immediately from its own body, as animals do, the plant bestows on every one of its progeny a couple of these pretty prefigurements of the mother's bosom; and however far the wind may carry them away, whatever geographical accident may befall them, nevertheless, within the shell, as soon as the latent life begins to stir, here are these delicate cotyledons able and ready to give suck. "When, as happens in certain races of plants, the cotyledons are exceedingly minute, the deficiency is compensated by an abundant storage within the shell of the seed, of the selfsame kind of nutriment. The likeness of the foliage of a tree, especially when pendulous and waving, to hair, and particularly to ringlets, is the ground of many a beautiful phrase in the classic poets; Ovid, for instance, in his "arboreas mulceat aura comas." Similar lines occur in many places in high-class English poetry, and will occur on the instant to every accomplished mind. These sycamore seeds vegetate with remarkable facility; and from some circumstance not yet determined, a larger proportion than of any other tree grow up into the first stage of life that follows lactation. In the spring; for one of any other self-sown seedling tree, there may generally be observed a score of sycamores, illustrating in the most beautiful manner, as growth proceeds, the gradual development of the handsome leaf so characteristic of the species.


By this last-named organ, the leaf, the sycamore and the maple may alike be distinguished from almost every other British tree. While the prevailing form is ovate, and the ash and some others are pinnate, here, in the maple and sycamore, we have the shape termed " fan-lobed' familiar in the leaf of the grape-vine. The leaf, that is to say, has about five great promontory-like projections, up to the point of every one of which runs an independent vein. The sycamore has the lobes acute; in the maple they are obtuse. In both trees, moreover, the leaves grow in pairs, whereby the sycamore is at once distinguished from that majestic exotic, the plane, in which they are disposed singly and alternately. There is no sort of relationship between the sycamore and the plane. Hence it is so much the more regretful that a tree of such ancient fame, consecrated alike by tradition, poetry, and philosophy, for they were planes which constituted the sacred groves and colonnades of the Academia, should have had confounded with it one of pretensions so inferior. Not that the sycamore is an unworthy tree. The dimensions it attains are often truly grand, and standing alone upon the sward of a park, where its imposing outline can be well realized, it has qualities, in regard to the picturesque, excelled by none. We must never judge of trees from the deformed and stunted examples that occur in hedgerows and in suburban gardens, or even from those which occur in plantations, nor always even from foresters. Trees, to develop their princely or queenly nature, as the case may be, require space, the free circling around and through them of nourishing winds, plenty of sunlight, to be unsoiled, and to be refreshed by gentle rain. Good timber may be yielded, likely enough, by trees unhappily placed as regards free growth; but the dignity of their figure, the repose of the outline, the sumptuous massing of the foliage of the mascaline kinds, the graceful trail of those of feminine habit, these, and all other such qualities, are possible only to a life of freedom. Precisely the difference between a ship laid up in a dock-yard, and, glorious in her white sails, afar off upon the sea, " walking the waters like a thing of life," is that of a tree as ordinarily seen, and the same species when robed in its grand privileges, and fulfilling the destiny assigned to it in the beginning.

The maple, Acer campestre, ordinarily seen only as a bushy mass in the hedgerow, attains, under congenial circumstances, the height of at least thirty feet; the sycamore grows to be seventy or eighty feet high, and examples are known with trunks of five or six feet in diameter. The age the latter is capable of attaining appears to be fully 200 years. While contrasting it with the exotic plane, it is right to say here that, although perfectly at home in this country, and often possessing all the semblance of an ancient Briton, the sycamore also is an exotic, having been introduced in the time of the later crusades, from some part of central or eastern Europe or western Asia, in which regions alone it is truly indigenous. The maple, on the other hand, is one of our veritable aborigines. Let it be added, as regards the samaras, that the two trees are distinguishable by a certain difference between these parts quite as readily as by the outline of their leaves. The samaras of the sycamore are so placed as to make a letter U, and resemble a pair of sword blades, while in the maple they spread horizontally. Those of the former hang in racemes those of the latter in little bunches of three or four.

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Maple and Sycamore Genus: Acer An article from "The Trees Of Old England" continued...

Maple and Sycamore Genus: Acer

Connected with the leaves of these two trees, there are one or two other circumstances deserving notice. In both, they are remarkably red when first developed, giving a faint idea of what Sir Emerson Tennent states to be the customary condition of things in the island of Ceylon. In that beautiful tropic island, he says, it is not autumn which is marked, as in England, by the assumption of rich colours by the trees, but Spring; that which in our northern latitudes accompanies decline and decay, being there associated with the energy of youth and growth. We may readily understand this from contemplating, not alone the lively tints of the trees in question, but the brilliant tints of the young leaves of many Indian plants cultivated in our conservatories: the Dracasnas, for example, which begin life in the most vivid and luxurious crimson. Another interesting fact is the peculiarly rapid expansion of the leaves, at all events in the sycamore. This comes of their being folded up, while in the bud, after the manner of a lady's fan when closed; and similarly, therefore, to those of the "lady's mantle," that pretty little occupant of our meadows and pastures, which holds dew in the plaits and angles. A few hours will often suffice to cover a sycamore-tree with an apparently miraculous outburst of foliage; buds in the early morning, in the evening a green vesture in every portion. The horse-chestnut, which has the leaves plaited while young, in a manner very similar, is the only tree of common occurrence which so soon changes winter into spring. There is also the curious ornamenting of the leaves of the maple with little red pimples, which gives them often a very pretty appearance. Turn the leaf upside down, and you will discover that every one of these pimples is in reality a little cell, the habitation of some creature still more minute, and having the entrance barricaded with tufts of white hairs/ very interesting to examine with the microscope. We admire the architectural grandeurs of a great city. How many millions of quiet little abodes are here, exquisitely beautiful in design and finish, which we never even see, or seeing, pass by with indifference and incuriousness! The sycamore, in its turn, is extremely liable, towards autumn, to have its leaves patched with great round spots of black. These have their origin in a parasitic plant of fungoid nature, named by the learned, Rhytistna acerina.

The October tinting varies considerably. While the sycamore presents no colour of interest, the maple turns to a deep, clear yellow, the more remarkable since in the sugar-maple of Canada and New Brunswick, the colour assumed before decay is an inexpressibly-brilliant red. The last-named tree is celebrated also for its copious supply of that saccharine sap which, when subjected to certain processes, becomes "maple-sugar." A similarly constituted sap exists more or less abundantly in all the species of Acer, but it is ordinarily too thin and watery to be used like that of the true sugar maple. Another excellent product of these trees is the wood. Many species have been esteemed for this from time immemorial. The Romans were particularly fond of it, and in Virgil we have Evander represented sitting on a maple throne. A corky bark forms another feature of the common English maple; and as if this were not sufficient to give botanical mark to the tree, the flowers are of the curious nature called " polygamous; " some, that is to say, are bisexual, others are only male, others are only female. The pistil, when present, is very elegantly formed, having the figure of a column, with two volutes at the summit, disposed after the manner of those in the Ionic style of architecture.

It may be useful to add that the sycamore-tree, above described, and which by botanists is named Acer Pseudo-platanus, is totally different from the sycomore of Scripture. How the name came to be extended to a tree so unlike is not known, or at least no explanation of it occurs in books. The sycomore of Scripture was a species of fig, Ficus sycomorus. It grew abundantly in the valleys of Palestine; also in Egypt, and hence obtained the name of Pharaoh's fig. To this day it is cultivated about Cairo and elsewhere for the sake of its shade; but it is a tree of little value either for timber or fruit. In ancient Egypt, where there were few native timber-trees, inferior as it is to many others, a certain importance necessarily attached to it, and the wood was used, it is said, in the manufacture of mummy-cases. The fruit is insipid, but sweetish, and is still used for food, but" only by the poorer classes of the people. The sycamine-tree is different again. By this name is intended the common black or purple mulberry, which, as well as the white mulberry, on the leaves of which silkworms are fed, is said now to abound in Palestine, though it is doubtful if the trees were common there in the days of the prophets.

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