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