WATERSIDE WILDLIFE

Once you re­alise the sycamore is a maple it be­comes ob­vi­ous, as Pip Web­ster ex­plains

Canal Boat - - This Month -

Don’t sit un­der the maple tree or even moor there if you’re to avoid a sticky sou­venir

If you have ever moored un­der a Sycamore tree for shade you may well have re­gret­ted it, find­ing tacky spots of hon­ey­dew on your paint­work. The sugar-rich liq­uid is a waste prod­uct se­creted by aphids (green­flies, black­flies and their kin) as they feed on plant sap. When the aphid’s mouth­parts pierce the phloem ex­cess amounts of the sug­ary solution are forced out of the back­side un­der pres­sure. It doesn’t all nec­es­sar­ily fall to the ground – some is har­vested by other in­sects in­clud­ing ants who ‘farm’ the aphids, pro­tect­ing them from nat­u­ral preda­tors such as la­dy­birds and lar­vae of hov­er­flies and lacewings. Aphids are also an im­por­tant food source for small in­secteat­ing birds such as Gold­crest, war­blers and tits.

Sycamore leaves – some of the ear­li­est to fall – are also a nui­sance on your boat, quickly turn­ing to mu­cilage (the wrong sort of leaves).

But wildlife is again the ben­e­fi­ciary: the slimy leaves de­cay quickly and boost earth­worm pop­u­la­tions.

The much-ma­ligned sycamore was in­tro­duced from cen­tral Europe some­where around 1500. It may have been a case of mis­taken iden­tity: the leaves are sim­i­lar in shape to those of syco­more, a Mid­dle East­ern fig cel­e­brated in the Bi­ble as a shade tree.

Our sycamore is a maple (Acer pseu­do­pla­tanus, lit­er­ally the false plane maple), of­ten re­ferred to as the Great Maple by early au­thor­i­ties and is nat­u­ralised through­out the coun­try in both woods and hedgerows.

Paired fruits ripen in late sum­mer, turn­ing from green through red to dry brown, and spread pro­lif­i­cally: each seed bears a wing which, spin­ning as it falls, is caught by the wind – like minia­ture he­li­copters. Bright green sycamore leaves, di­vided into five toothed lobes, sel­dom re­main pris­tine for long: they of­ten be­come cov­ered in a rash of pro­trud­ing red ‘nail galls’. Each gall houses a tiny plant-eat­ing mite, a rel­a­tive of the spi­der. You may also no­tice large black bi­tu­mi­nous blotches on fallen leaves, caused by the Acer Tar Spot fun­gus grow­ing in the up­per leaf epi­der­mis. It is more com­mon on trees grow­ing in moist, shel­tered lo­ca­tions and, since the fun­gus is sen­si­tive to the pol­lu­tant, sul­phur diox­ide, sel­dom oc­curs in ur­ban or in­dus­trial ar­eas.

Rhytisma doesn’t usu­ally af­fect the vigour of the tree, though it may cause pre­ma­ture de­fo­li­a­tion.

Fungi grow all year round, though we usu­ally as­so­ciate ‘toad­stools’ – the rel­a­tively large and vis­i­ble fruit­ing bod­ies of some kinds of fungi – with the warm, damp weather of au­tumn. Shaggy Inkcap can be found from April through to Novem­ber, though it is prob­a­bly com­mon­est from late sum­mer, grow­ing in grass, par­tic­u­larly on re­cently dis­turbed soil. Sites con­tain­ing woody de­bris are par­tic­u­larly favoured.

The tall, egg or tor­pe­doshaped cap is cov­ered when young in tiers of shaggy, re­curved, brown­ish-tipped white scales – hence the al­ter­na­tive name of Lawyer’s Wig. As the fun­gus ma­tures the cap lifts up­wards, away from the stem. Both the cap and white gills grad­u­ally blacken and dis­solve into black ‘ink’ from the edge up­wards, re­leas­ing spores to be washed away by rain or car­ried on pass­ing feet.

Good black draw­ing ink used to be made from the del­i­ques­cent caps by boil­ing the ‘ink’ with a lit­tle wa­ter and cloves.

Shaggy Inkcap is one of the largest and the com­mon­est of a whole fam­ily of Inkcaps – more com­mon than the Com­mon Inkcap. Also very com­mon is the much more del­i­cate Pleated Inkcap (Lit­tle Ja­panese Um­brella) that may grow in the short grass along­side the towpath, ap­pear­ing overnight and with­er­ing by noon.

The smooth, bell-shaped grey-white cap soon flat­tens to a 1 to 2 cm wide pleated para­sol with a dark or­ange­brown disc at the cen­tre. The pleats should help you to dis­tin­guish this frag­ile fun­gus from the many “lit­tle brown jobs” of the fun­gus world that grow in grass.

En­joy the early au­tumn.

Sycamore seeds ready to take flight

Blame the bugs for sticky sap

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