The end of the Gap Sycamore

by frankbeswick

Plant propagation methods must be put to work to save a damaged tree.

Plants grow from seeds, we all know this, but there is a range of other ways by which plants can be made to grow. Propagation by seed is known as sexual propagation, but the alternative way is vegetative propagation. The products of sexual propagation are always the product of both parents, and so you cannot propagate an exact copy of an individual by growing from seed. But vegetative propagation makes clones, exact copies of individuals. There are several distinct ways of doing it, but not all ways work for every plant. Some plants, hybrids, cannot use sexual methods and have to be propagated by vegetative methods Many trees are cultivated using vegetative propagation.
Photo courtesy of stencilmist, of Pixabay

A much loved tree is felled

Some English people are asking whether a tree can be murdered. Look at the lovely sycamore in the picture, standing in regal splendour in a gap in Hadrian's wall. Then weep. Many Britons have wept in the last few days. During one night a vandal armed with a chain saw cut it down. I cannot name him, as the  police have yet to reveal his name. But he [and it is a he] is  not going to be popular. But love conquers all, so experts have been consulted to determine what can be done. The simplest method is coppicing. When a healthy tree is felled the stump remains alive, and after a year or so new, vigorous shoots begin to grow from the stump. Each of these has the potential to grow into a full sized trunk. Younger people may live to see the new tree, but we older  tree lovers will not be so fortunate Coppicing is sometimes used to give extra vigour to a plant that needs to thrive. This is called coppiced vigour. 

Scientists are suggesting that we use cuttings to propagate offspring for the tree. These are not the tree itself, so they differ from coppices, but they are the tree's children. I must bow to the experts here, as sycamores can be propagated by what we call softwood cuttings taken in spring, but Fall [Autumn to Britons] is a time to take what are known as hard wood cuttings. We are currently in Fall,  so is it too late? I fear that cuttings might not work, but the experts may have some method for dealing with this problem in the laboratory. Other scientists are collecting the tree's seeds.  There is work being done on micropropagation in laboratories, so there is hope.

Cuttings can be taken from different parts of  a plant. In some plants the cutting is a healthy green stem. It is severed gently from the main stem and then trimmed by shortening it . Then the leaves are reduced in number leaving two on the cutting. This is to slow down the cutting's metabolism to a rate at which it can survive. Then it is placed in a low nutrient growing medium, e.g. cutting compost, after dipping the base of the cutting in growth hormone. The process then involves keeping the cutting in a warm, moist propagator, some amateur growers use   a plastic bag. Then maintain the environment and hope that the cutting thrives.  

Cuttings can be taken from various parts of the plant, the exact type of cutting to be taken depends upon the specific plant. Some plants grow from root cuttings Other plants propagate using leaf cuttings, when large leaves are cut down in size and then laid on top of a growing medium. Roots eventually spring out of the leaf. Yet several types of plant, such as strawberries, can be propagated by runners. These are long tendrils that shoot horizontally above ground and take root when and where they touch the soil. Growers use this characteristic to propagate new plants by pegging the runner to the ground so that it takes root in a specific place. At the appropriate time in the cultivation process the runner is severed from the new plant.  But this does not work with sycamores.

The Gap Sycamore

The Gap Sycamore
The Gap Sycamore


Could we use grafting. Almost all cultivated fruit trees are grafts. This means that the root and the stem just above the root are from one variety of tree, but the rest of the tree on which the fruit grows is from another variety that the grower wants to fruit. So the grower gets root stocks that have been shortened to maybe eighteen inches and grafts the piece to be grafted  onto them. The grower does not want any fruit from the rootstock, which must have been trimmed of all fruiting buds. The rootstocks are planted in the ground several weeks ahead of the grafting to give them time to settle in.  

But not just any rootstock will be satisfactory. If you want to produce, for example, Victoria plums on an area where there is little room, you are advised to graft on a dwarfing rootstock, which means that the trees will grow short. If you want something a bit taller, choose a semi-dwarfing root stock, or if you want normally sized trees, choose a standard one .Apples and pears need a rootstock from the plant family to which they belong, but it need not be their own species, and there are some apple varieties  that will graft happily with  quince. Plums and damsons are so closely related that plum rootstocks  will suffice for all.

The technique of grafting is quite simple, for while  there are a few techniques, all follow the  same principles. The most popular form of grafting is T -budding. In this technique a T shaped cut is made in the root stock  and the bark is peeled back. A small piece of wood containing a bud forms the scion, the piece from the tree to be grafted is brought to the rootstock and carefully trimmed to be the shape and size of the cut in the bark. The aim of the process is to ensure that the cambium from both plants comes into contact and  remains so for the life time of the graft, which should be the lifetime of the tree. The graft is then bound tightly to the rootstock. Hopefully, the graft  will take and you will have propagated a properly grafted fruit tree.

We do not normally graft sycamores, so there is no realistic hope of using grafting to remedy the damage that has been done. All sycamores are prolific with their seeds, so we could grow a new sycamore. But that is defeatism. British tree lovers want the gap sycamore to survive. That is the way to defeat the vandal. One well-intentioned young man planted a tiny sapling to replace the gap tree, but the authorities informed him that in making an unauthorized planting on National Trust land he  had broken the law, but his  good intentions were recognized, and no action was taken. The sapling was dug up.

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Updated: 10/03/2023, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 11/02/2023

I am delighted to hear from you. We don't receive anywhere near enough comments from Australia, so keep on writing. Your thoughts are welcome.

Jo_Murphy on 11/02/2023

This is such an interesting article. thanks for bringing my awareness to something I didn’t know about. Jo

frankbeswick on 11/02/2023

Two adult males have been arrested for the crime, but whether the first two people arrested are still subject to investigation I am unclear.

frankbeswick on 10/14/2023

The National Trust, has restoration experts on its payroll. They and the Trust management will together decide all repair matters.

DerdriuMarriner on 10/14/2023

That's good news about the cracked stones being repairable from the Gap Sycamore and Hadrian's Wall collision.

It seems that it would be such an honor to have such a repair achievement on one's curriculum vitae and resume.

Who would determine who gets to do the repairing?

frankbeswick on 10/14/2023

Latest news. Inspection reveals that the tree fell across Hadrian's Wall, with the thick canopy of branches cushioning the impact. Only three stones were cracked and they can be repaired by lime mortar

frankbeswick on 10/13/2023

That's a good idea Derdriu, but it has not been taken up.

DerdriuMarriner on 10/13/2023

You indicated in another answer to my previous comments and questions that "Today, October 12, The fallen trunk was snedded, which means stripped of branches, and trimmed to a manageable size to facilitate moving. A mobile crane was sent to move it gently so that Hadrian's Wall would not be damaged. The fallen trunk was then taken to an unidentified place for safe storage."

Might the stripped branches and "manageable" size-trimming have left pieces on the ground for memento-seekers to retrieve? Or would everything have been relocated somewhere (hopefully not a landfill, which might have happened here, outside such history- and tradition-minded states as Massachusetts)?

frankbeswick on 10/13/2023

The fallen section was moved, but the fallen trunk remains the property of the National Trust and therefore is not open to all comers. What will be done with the wood remains unclear.

But t,he National Trust's site manager says that the felling has coppiced the tree, and thus prolonged its life.But they will need to protect it against grazing deer and sheep, which eat shoots

DerdriuMarriner on 10/12/2023

You indicated in a comment box below that "The tree is still lying where it fell, but when something bad happens to a popular tree the wood is taken and carved by craftspeople into ornaments."

Might the wood-taking be on a first-come first-take basis?

And would the ornaments be exhibited in a cultural or local museum or kept for family and friends or sold?

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