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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 coastal areas.

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 1972).

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, London.
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: 55-65.
Gilbert, O.L. 1989. Ecology of urban habitats. Chapman & Hall, London.
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 3: 178-183.
Webb, D.A. 1977. An Irish Flora. Dundalgan Press, Dundalk.
Wilkinson, C. 1981. A history of Britain's trees. Hutchinson, London.
    Copyright © 1999 Pierre Binggeli. All rights reserved.