|Invasive Woody Plants
Tree Autecology and Biology
Temperate Forest Ecology
Tropical Forest Ecology
Sand Dune Ecology
by P. Binggeli published in 1993 in Plant-Lore Notes
& News 29, 131-133.
Many tree species in the British Isles have an
extensive folklore and have been widely used for centuries. One
exception is sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus), which was probably
introduced to Britain around the sixteenth century, but is now one of
the commonest tree species in the British landscape, especially in
In P-LN&N pp. 54-55 John Denton gave extracts on
the folklore of sycamore from C.A. Johns' Forest Trees of Britain
(1847), and on pp. 105-106 there is an extract on the making of sycamore
whistles, taken from L. Jones' Schoolin's Log (1980). According to some
authors, for example Henry Betts, in his English Myths & Traditions
(London, 1952), p 54, the Dover Lone Tree mentioned in P-LN&N, pp.
107-108 is (or was) a sycamore tree, not an elm. This notes gives
further information on sycamore folklore.
Sycamore does not appear to have had many mystical
connections in Britain. In Montgomeryshire (Sayce, 1938; cited in Evans,
1957) recorded the belief that 'sycamore trees keep the fairies away and
stop them spoiling the milk'. The tree was confused with the biblical Ficus
sycomorus for some time, hence its name (Johns, 1849, & Howard,
1944). In 1690 John Ray noted that sycamore was planted in churchyards
(Wilkinson 1981). In early nineteenth century English and Welsh
cemeteries sycamore was one of the four most commonly planted species
and the variety 'Luteoverens' is more abundant in cemeteries than
in surrounding park and gardens (Gilbert, 1989).
Another explanation for the confusion between the two
species, based on the macroscopic resemblance of the wood, has been
proposed by Maby (1933). He suggested that the confusion arose because
both timbers were valued by the ancients. This explanation is doubtful
because in most of its natural range, particulary in German-speaking
areas where Acer pseudoplatanus is an important timber tree, the name
sycamore is not used.
In Cornwall sycamore played an important part of the
customs associated with 1 May and Furry, or Flora, Day (8 May). Davey
(1909) provides the following account: 'On the first of May young people
went into the country calling at farmhouses en route, where they were
refreshed with milk, cream, and junket. They then proceeded to gather
'May' or sycamore branches, out of which they made whistles and peweeps,
by deftly removing circular pieces of bark. With these as instruments of
music, the party returned to the town, bearing aloft huge branches of
`May'. Although this old custom has long died out, most country boys
still know how to make the whistles and peweeps. In the neighbourhood of
Helston old folk continue to speak of Flora Day as Faddy Day, and those
who go into the country for branches of sycamore or `May' as having gone
a faddying'. As a result sycamore was locally known as the:
whistle-tree, peweep-tree, faddy-tree or May. Between the first two
dances a folk play, known as the Hal-an-Tow, is performed. At least some
of the participants in this play carry large sycamore branches, and the
'houses and public buildings are decorated with branches of sycamore and
beech, flowers, and evergreens' (Hole, 1976).
Elsewhere in the British Isles other names have been
given to sycamore and include: plane, great maple and plinntriinn in
Scotland (Fergusson, 1878) and crann bán in Ireland (Webb, 1977).
In country areas children had a good knowledge of the
tree's morphology, particularly bud size, calling terminal ones 'cocks'
and lateral ones 'hens' (Kelman, 1908). In Scotland sycamore was a
preferred tree for hanging because its large lower branches wouldn't
accidentally break (Johns, 1847). In Ayrshire, the tree became known as
the `Deurshuil' or remembrance tree, as the loss of men by a clan was
mourned by the chieftain and his men beneath its shade (Cooper, 1957).
During the eighteenth and nineteenth century sycamore
was extensively planted around farmstead and its wood (said, according
to Tsoumis, 1968, to smell like strawberry jam when hot and wet) was
used for making everyday tools, including platters, butter pats and
furniture (Simpson, 1905, & Edlin, 1958). Sycamore sap could be used
to make ale (Johns, 1847) or wine (Fergusson, 1878).
In Ireland, between Portlaoise and Mountrath there is
a large sycamore of which the trunk up to a height of 2m is studded with
densely packed coins. The tree is situated on the site of a famous
monastery and school founded by St Fintan in 548. "In the 1940s it
was common to hang rags of cloth on the tree, which was then known as
the `rag tree'. The hanging of rags was done to seek favours and cures
from St Fintan. Old people still occasionally hang rags on the tree, but
nowadays it is more common to leave coins." Hence the tree is known
as the `money tree' (Anon., 1988).
|Although sycamore is important tree in alpine regions
of Europe it has relatively few connections with folklore and human
activities. Some villages (e.g. Ayer) and a family name are derived from
the sycamore name. One tree is in the Canton of Graubünden
(Switzerland) is famous since a major treaty was signed under its canopy
some 500 years ago (Beerli, 1955). Remnants of its lower trunk are now
kept in the Trun Museum. In France the prolific reproduction of maples,
including that of sycamore, has given rise to a proverbe: "Prêcher
la chasteté aux érables, prêcher dans le désert" (Fontnoire
No doubt a closer look at the scattered European
literature should reveal many more interesting facts.
- Anon. 1988. The money tree. Ir. For. 45: 82.
- Beerli, A. 1955. Grisons - 42 itinéraires. Touring-Club Suisse
and Shell Switzerland, Genève.
- Cooper, R.E. 1957. The sycamore tree: the Deurshuil or
remembrance tree. Scott. For. 11: 169-176.
- Edlin, H.L. 1967. A modern sylva or a discourse of forest trees.
21. Sycamore and maples - Acer genus. Quart. J. For. 61: 123-130.
- Evans, E.E. 1957. Irish folk ways. Routledge & Kegan Paul,
- Fergusson, C. 1878. The gaelic names of trees, shrubs, plants
& etc. Trans. Gaelic Soc. Inverness, 1-32.
- Fontnoire, J. 1972. Les érables. Forêt Privée Franç. 85:
- Gilbert, O.L. 1989. Ecology of urban habitats. Chapman &
- Howard, A.L. 1944. The sycamore tree. Nature 153: 348-349.
- Johns, C.A. 1847. The forest trees of Britain. Vol. 1. Society
for Promoting Christian Knowledge, London.
- Kelman, J.H. 1908. Trees shown to the children. Jack, London.
- Maby, J.C. 1933. Further notes on the identification of woods
and charcoals. Analyst 58: 219-222.
- Sayce, R.U. 1938. Montgomeryshire collections.
- Simpson, J. 1905. The great trees of the northern forest. No.
28. The sycamore maple (Acer pseudo-platanus). Flora Silva
- Webb, D.A. 1977. An Irish Flora. Dundalgan Press, Dundalk.
- Wilkinson, C. 1981. A history of Britain's trees. Hutchinson,