Plane trees of London

'The London Plane Trees'

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The following is the text of an article by the nurseryman Thomas Rivers of Sawbridgeworth, published in Gardener's Chronicle, 21 January 1860.


When I visit London in summer I always feel much interested in the luxuriant and happy state the Plane trees seem to be in compared with other London trees. It seems but of little consequence where they grow, for fine lines may be seen in the confined back yards and courts of the City as well as in the West End. It is however in the gardens of the squares of the latter district that the finest trees may be found. These are, as far as I have seen, of two kinds only:- the Oriental plane with leaves deeply palmated or cut, and with a fine dark green glossy upper surface to them which always gives the trees a charming country look; and another kind with larger leaves not so deeply palmated. It is to this kind of plane I wish to draw attention, for I think it is generally called the Occidental Plane by the public as well as nurserymen. As far as my experience has gone, I believe this name to be entirely erroneous, and that not a single tree of the Occidental or American Plane (Platanus occidentalis) exists in the London squares or gardens. Pray allow me to say why I disbelieve in the existence of this kind of Plane; others perhaps of your correspondents will correct me if I think erroneously.

Some 40 years since there were in my nursery two rows of what nurserymen call 'stools' of Planes, planted by my grandfather about the year 1780. One of these rows consisted of stools of the "Occidental Plane" the other of the "Oriental Plane" - at least these were the names given to them. When a youth my attention was strongly drawn to the peculiar growth of the Occidental Plane; its leaves were enormous, but very slightly lobed and almost circular, an the shoots of the preceding year generally died down three-fourths of their growth in spring. I remember endeavouring to form into standards the young trees raised by layers from the stools, as their foliage was so grand, but never could succeed. If two or three hot summers followed each other I had hopes, but immediately a wet, cold season or two came on, these trees became stumps from all their young shoots dying down. About 20 or perhaps 30 years ago, I used frequently to receive from Mr. Charlwood seeds of Platanus occidentalis imported from the United States; these always gave plants with the characters of my grandfather's Occidental Plane, and Sir William Hooker, in a recent communication says - "We often raise young plants of P. occidentalis from American seed, but the annual shoots are killed down every winter. "

I believe that this Plane never has existed in England, so as to form large trees, and those mentioned by some authors as being large trees 50 years ago at Kew and elsewhere, and those mentioned by Miller in his Dictionary (fol. 1759) were not the true Platanus occidentalis.

The rows of Planes I have allude to above, growing near the P. occidentalis stools, and called "Oriental Planes," I found to be most vigorous growers, often making shoots in one season from 10 to 12 feet in length. I soon found out that this was not the true Oriental Plane, for its leaves awere larger and not so deeply palmated. While in doubt what this kind of Plane could be, I received from France a Plane named "Platanus acerifolia" (or Maple-leaved). This sort I found to be the same as my vigorous growing Plane, and the kind grown in the nurseries, parks, and squares of London under the name of the Occidental Plane.

It is entirely distinct from the Oriental and Occidental Planes, and is thought by some good authorities to be a European species or variety, probably identical with the Platanus hispanica of Miller and Loudon. Miller, who seems to have been well up in plane trees, says:- "That which is called the Maple leaved Plane is certainly a seminal variety of the Eastern Plane, for the seeds which scattered from a large tree of this kind in the Chelsea Garden have produced plants of that sort several times." He then goes on to say:- "The Spanish Plane has larger leaves than either of the other sorts, which are more divided than those of the Occidental but not so much as the Eastern. "

I have received both these varieties from France, one under the name of P. acerifolia, the other as P. acerifolia macrophylla; they agree with Miller's description most accurately. Loudon makes P. acerifolia and P. hispanica alias macrophylla varieties of P. orientalis. Whatever the origin of the P. acerifolia, whether of France or Spain, or one of "natural selection" according to Darwin, or a hybrid, it forms the type of a vigorous race, having a most remarkable characteristic, viz, a readiness to strike from cuttings which goes through all the group, whereas the Occidental Plane and the Oriental Plane, with its two varieties P. cuneata and P. nepalensis will not strike from cuttings. I have had cuttings of these three latter kinds prepared with care and planted at the same time and in the same soil with those of P. acerifolia and its varieties, yet scarcely one in a hundred would grow, while of the others scarcely any fail. There are many fine trees of the Oriental Plane in London; I think I have remarked some in Berkeley Square Gardens, and in other squares in the West End. In Surrey at Weston House, in the village of Albury, are some remarkably fine trees. Of the Maple-leaved or falsely-called Occidental Plane there are many large trees in London, even in the city; I think I remember seeing a large tree at the bark of Bucklersbury, one at the end of Paternoster Row, and in several other places in the heart of the city. At Audley End, near Saffron Walden, are some very large trees of this kind, and in many other parks and places. The trees may always be distinguished from the Oriental Plane by their broad leaves, but slightly lobed and heavy in appearance when compared with it.

There are several seedling varieties of the Maple-leaved Plane, mostly of French origin; they are all vigorous, hardy, and likely to prove most useful for suburban planting. The type and its varieties are as under:-

PLATANUS ACERIFOLIA, commonly called the Occidental Plane.

1. P. acerifolia palmata, much palmated with leaves more pubescent than those of P. orientalis, growth more erect.

2. P. acerifolia palmata superba, with much larger leaves than No.2, very deeply palmated growth, more spreading, very vigorous.

3. P. acerifolia pyramidata; leaves nearly entire; habit erect, compact, and very hardy and vigorous, likely to form a noble tree.

4. P. acerifolia grandiflora; leaves slightly lobed like the type but of much larger growth; erect and vigorous.

It does not seem probable that the Maple-leaved Plane can be a hybrid between the Oriental and Occidental Planes, because the latter has never made any progress in this country towards a seed-bearing state. Loudon gives Willdenow as his authority for its name of acerifolia, and an eminent botanist has suggested that it may be a species or variety peculiar to the south of Europe, perhaps Spain, as the name of P. hispanica given to a variety almost identical with it would seem to justifiy. I have recently received from France a Plane under the name of Platanus macrophylla. This appears to me to the the variety of P. acerifolia called by Miller and Loudon P. hispanica, as its leaves are sligtly larger than P. acerifolia, and perhaps more deeply lobed, but to a very trifling extent; in short, it agrees with Miller's description of the Spanish Plane tree. Thos. Rivers.

Notes; the reference to 'No. 2' in the line starting '2. P. acerifolia palmata superba' is reproduced from the original article. There were several members of the Rivers family who were known by the name Thomas Rivers; the author was probably the 3rd Thomas Rivers, who died in 1877. Another description of the suitability of planes for the capital was published in this journal, in 1866, probably by the same author.

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