The sapling sprouts a new image

"Who was that?" I yelled from the basement cupboard that is my Saturday construction job just now.

"Eddie," said she who had kindly answered the summons. "He's dug a four-foot hole and wants your advice. Just when you're passing."

It's terribly flattering being asked for advice. It means other people think you know more about something than they do and, naturally, you shouldn't disillusion them.

Eddie lives down the road. I can't decide whether he is retired or not. He seems to find time these days to indulge what to him is a fairly new sport, gardening. His zest is engaging. Like a kid with a new toy chest.

I encourage Eddie not to take my advice. The only difference between us, horticulturally speaking, is that I've been doing it ignorantly for 50 years and he, five. The roses and onions can't tell us apart.

All the same, I give him the benefit of my sage counsel, delivered with the air of an oracle consulting the oak leaves. One doesn't like to disappoint. But all he's getting, really, are my prejudices. If he knows this, he is magnanimous enough not to show it.

Take the case of his sapling sycamore.

Eddie likes a bargain, and this jaunty young tree rapidly establishing itself in his border, came free. A seedling. A gift horse.

He asked me what it was.

"That," I replied, stuffily, "is the offspring of that!" I pointed disdainfully at a tree over his fence. "It's a sycamore," (I made the word sound vulgar) "and you'd be best to get rid of it." He looked unconvinced. He liked it. Ah, the innocence of babes.

That exchange was a month or two ago.

Now, this Saturday, I wandered his way, and there he was, by the roadside in front of his house, in his hole.

"Clay," he said.

"It's everywhere," I agreed.

"Do you think it's deep enough?" he asked.

"I do," I said.

He had planted, and then lost, more than one tree in this hole. I told him a few times it was too small. At last he had taken my advice. This big hole was a hole any tree would be proud to be holed up in.

Now he was wondering what to plant in it. We mulled over various options as we toured his garden again, and then he said: "How about that?" He pointed to his fast-growing sycamore sapling.

"Ah," he said, "but you don't like them...."

"Well," I said, "in fact, I'm beginning to change my mind about sycamores...."

Oddly, sycamores have been much on my mind lately. Until now I've hardly given them a thought. They are commoners. They have been simply everywhere all my life. Here in Glasgow, Scotland, many gardens have them. And their neighbors have their prolific progeny. I can't remember a time I wasn't aware of sycamores – or indifferent to them.

I've felt that way about some other trees – alders, for instance. But I have come to like them. Sycamores have coarse-textured, too-large maple leaves and lumpish silhouettes. But they, too, have now performed a volte-face in my affections.

I say "maple" leaf, because, in Britain, the tree we call sycamore is not only a maple, but about the largest maple imaginable. John Gerard, in his popular Herbal of 1597, preferred to call it "the great maple." But, introduced from southern Europe, it was scarcely known in Britain then, and so its popular name (which in other countries is just as popularly attached to quite different tree species) hadn't settled down yet. Sycamore was originally the name of a Middle Eastern fig.

There's no doubt I had been caught up in a tradition of prejudice against sycamores. John Evelyn, I now discovered, in his 1664 book "Sylva," set the disgusted-with-sycamores tone for future repetitions. He disliked their fallen leaves rotting on paths "in curious Gardens and Avenues." He advocated banishment. Today, conservationists lambaste the tree as a matter of faith and to gardeners it's a weed.

But it turns out there are approvers. I came across one the other week in northeast Scotland. This head gardener pointed to a stand of sycamores planted in the 1700s as part of a very necessary shelter belt. He could hardly contain his admiration for them. The scales fell from my eyes. They were, I suddenly saw, everything a tree should be. Sturdy and strong, an image of survival and bearing the brunt. On these ancient specimens the leaves, which look disproportionate on young sycamores, seemed exactly right. The trunks, compared by one tree enthusiast to the "plates" of "rhinoceros armour," were just as crustily noble as those of the heroic oak.

"They are the best," said the northern gardener. "Stunners." And then he added the magic words: "In the right place." They work wonderfully in uplands, and near the sea.

Today, the balance seems to be adjusting in the sycamore's favor, though, as Richard Mabey wrote in 1996, the tree has long had an "alternative and less disreputable history."

"I'm beginning to quite like them," I told Eddie. "But still ... wouldn't you want a neater tree in your new hole? Sycamores do grow very fast. They might block your view...."

But I knew I didn't sound as convincing as an adviser should.

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