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A deciduous tree of the largest size, reaching at its best a height of over 100 ft and a girth of trunk of 20 ft. Bark of the trunk pale, greyish, and peeling off in large flakes; branchlets glabrous. Leaves usually five-lobed (small ones on fruiting twigs often three-lobed), 4 to 7 in. across in adult trees (larger in young ones), heart-shaped at the base; the lobes ovate, coarsely toothed, dark green and glabrous above, paler and dull glaucous beneath, with pale brown hairs in the axils of the veins or, sometimes, along the whole length of the chief ones. Flowers in large drooping racemes, often branching at the base, yellowish green. Fruit on long, pendulous racemes; keys 11⁄4 to 2 in. long; wings glabrous, the two forming an angle of about 60°.
Native of Europe, but not considered to be a true native of Britain, where however, it has existed many centuries and has thoroughly established itself. Judging by the way seedlings spring up in the wilder parts of Kew Gardens, it would seem that in course of time the place, if left to run wild, would become a forest of common sycamore. It is a peculiarly hardy tree, and one of the few that will stand the full force of salt-laden winds in exposed places near the sea. One may see it in many of the gardens on the sea-fronts of English watering-places, battered and stunted in growth, yet helping largely to form that first line of defence against the winds, the establishment of which is really the most important item in the seaside planting. When fully grown it is a magnificent tree of stately proportions, thriving better perhaps in the north of England and in Scotland (where it is known as the ‘plane’) than in the warmer south. Early in this century there was an ancient tree in the grounds of Scone Palace, near Perth, reputed to have been planted by Mary Queen of Scots. Although still alive, most of its upper growth had gone, but its trunk was more than 6 ft through. Mr R. F. Adam, Factor of the Scone Estate, tells us that what remained of this tree was blown down about 1940-1, at which time it was little more than an ivy-covered stump. He adds that the Queen planted a maple on precisely the same spot in 1967. H. J. Elwes, in Trees of Great Britain and Ireland, wrote (1908) that in Scotland ‘I have seen none to surpass in size, shape and perfection the one which I figure … in front of Newbattle Abbey’. He gave the size as about 95 ft high by 16 ft 6 in. in girth at 5 ft. This noble tree still exists; its height, however, is 90 ft, and its girth, measured at an old 5 ft mark, is 16 ft 4 in. (1966).
Among English trees Elwes gave the palm to one at Studley Royal in Yorkshire, then (1908) 104 ft high and 171⁄2 ft in girth. This tree has not been traced and the tallest now on record for England are two at Cobham Hall, Kent, measuring 110 × 191⁄4 and 96 × 141⁄4 ft (1965). Others of size are: Gwydyr Castle, Caer., 90 × 161⁄4 ft (1966); Biel, E. Lothian, 105 × 131⁄2 ft (1967); Hagley Castle, Worcs., 90 × 15 ft (1966); and Holywell Hall, Lincs., 85 × 191⁄2 ft (1966).
The foliage of the sycamore has no autumn beauty, decaying a dingy brown; it is frequently attacked by the tar-spot fungus Rhytisma acerinum, which causes yellow or pale spots to appear on the leaf-blade in June that turn black towards the fall of the leaf. The timber is white, and easily worked.
The sycamore has produced very many varieties and forms under cultivation, some as seedling variations, others as branch sports. It is not necessary to enumerate more than the most distinct of them.
The sycamore is subject to sporadic attacks of the sooty bark disease, caused by the fungus Cryptostoma corticate, which enters the bark through cracks and lesions, and kills the surrounding tissues. The first sign of attack is usually the wilting of foliage in part of the crown. The disease, which is not fatal, is believed to occur most frequently in years following a hot summer (J. Burdekin, Gard. Chron., Nov. 2, 1979).
specimens: Godinton Park, Kent, 70 × 191⁄2 ft (1983); Cobham Hall, Kent, 118 × 20 ft and 98 × 151⁄4 ft (1982); Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Tree, Tolpuddle, Dorset, 40 × 181⁄4 ft (1979); Bolton Park, Lincs., a fine tree, 100 × 15 ft (1978); Gwydir Castle, Gwyn., 98 × 161⁄2 ft (1984); Tyninghame, E. Lothian, 105 × 24 ft at 3 ft (1984); Dalmeny, nr Edinburgh, 102 × 171⁄4 ft (1984); Birnam, Perth, 105 × 241⁄2 ft (1983); Cortachy Castle, Angus, pl. 1883, 70 × 101⁄2 ft (1981); Dunrobin Castle, Suth., 92 × 103⁄4 ft, on a fine bole (1980); Taymouth Castle, Perths., 98 × 181⁄2 ft (1983); Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfries, 111 × 231⁄4 ft (1984); Beauly Priory, Inv., 62 × 171⁄4 ft (1983).
cv. ‘Brilliantissimum’. – The cultivar ‘Prinz Handjery’ is sometimes supplied for this. It is of more open habit (‘Brilliantissimum’ is always dense and rounded), has the leaves purple beneath and flowers freely.
cv. ‘Corstorphinense’. - specimens: Green Park, London, 70 × 71⁄4 ft (1979); Moncrieffe House, Perth, 85 × 141⁄2 ft (1982).
f. erythrocarpum – It is doubtful whether there is such a thing as a sycamore that produces red-winged fruits year after year. For no apparent reason a tree may produce a quite spectacular display of these, never to do so again.
f. variegatum - specimens: Ashridge Park, Herts., 82 × 103⁄4 ft (1980); Stowe Park, Bucks., 77 × 151⁄4 ft at 3 ft (1981); Stourhead House, Wilts., 85 × 131⁄2 ft (1980); Stonefield, Argyll, 70 × 101⁄4 ft (1981); Whittingehame, E. Lothian, 88 × 121⁄4 ft (1974); Dunkeld, Perths., near Cathedral, 102 × 111⁄2 ft (1981).
A. p. var. villosum Parl