Plane trees of London


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Plane trees are among the most numerous larger street and park trees in Greater London. Most of them are varieties of the hybrid plane. In the 19th century these hybrids became the dominant tree on the streets of the city due to their tolerance of the then prevalent industrial pollution. Hence they got their common English name, 'London plane'.

History of cultivation

The Oriental plane, the only one known in cultivation from the Old World, has been cultivated in gardens for millennia, especially in its native range of south-east Europe and Western Asia. It was the first plane tree known to have been planted elsewhere in Europe, from about 1650. Then it was mostly grown as unusual curiosities, typically in the gardens of the rich, sometimes together with the Occidental or American plane. It is believed that a group of hybrids derived from crosses between these two species occurred in about the mid 17th century. It is often claimed that this occurred in Britain, and the Oxford University Botanic Garden is generally said to be the location. Other opinion is that it occurred first in southern Europe, where certainly both species would have occurred more frequently. In any case, the first of these hybrid trees are recorded from England by about 1680.

Part of avenue at Battersea Park

Part of avenue at Battersea Park

Among the known oldest Oriental planes in London is one at Osterley Park, dated to 1759, and one at Kew Gardens, of similar age. Many others can be found across the city, though much less frequently than the hybrid planes. The Occidental plane is badly disease prone and is rarely seen except as young trees in botanic gardens, at least in Britain.

The oldest living hybrids, i.e. the London planes, are known to go back in the capital as far as the later 18th century and perhaps earlier. They include some trees at Kew Gardens, which are dated to the 1770s (Bean). The tree at Barn Elms Recreation Grounds, and the one by the Sutton Ecology Centre at Carshalton are probably also from the late 18th century. A few other trees exist in London that may be comparable in age.

Most of the remaining trees were planted when new parks, squares and streets were developed and constructed during and after the industrial revolution. Apart from a few historic estates, most trees seen now are from plantings of the 19th century and later. For much of suburban London, the plantings are often from the periods of their urban development in the late 19th and earlier 20th century.

Tree plantings today

London planes are present now in numerous parks and other spaces, and as roadside trees. This is especially so for those parks and streets developed during the periods of high industrial pollution, in the later 19th and earlier 20th century. Plane trees have proved particularly resistant to pollution. Because London was one of the first cities where they were seen to flourish, they have taken the city's name.

Trees in parks are sometimes grown as single specimens. However a common use was as avenue trees and lines of boundary trees. Some of the largest and best avenues can be seen now in the central London Royal Parks, in particular the eastern boundary of Hyde Park alongside Park Lane, and along the south carriage drive in Kensington Gardens between Princes Gate and the Albert memorial. Other similar plantings in other parks have generally not reached the impressive size of the preceding examples, but examples can be found throughout London.

Residential road lined with pollarded planes

A typical residential road lined
with pollarded planes (winter)

While the proportion of planes as street trees varies between inner and outer London, it can be estimated that about a tenth of all street trees in Greater London are planes. Unfortunately, the tree grows too large for most roads, hence they get pruned heavily to the typical 'lollipop' shapes that most residents will be familiar with (pollarded trees). In some instances, a more sympathetic, and more expensive pruning is carried out that leaves the tree looking more natural.

Planes have also been planted in other public and communal areas. Central London's squares are dominated by them. They are also fairly common in housing estates, schools, and other institutional grounds. In some areas, and especially in inner London, a few trees can be found in private gardens.

They are still planted frequently, being reliable and easy to establish and maintain. Their use along roads is being gradually reduced in favour of smaller trees and today more frequently in favour of native trees. The planes however still retain their advantage in polluted air and often in difficult soil conditions. They are likely to have a further advantage if the climate warms further.

Oldest trees

Some noteworthy trees

Large trees

Most varieties of plane trees form large trees. The different varieties look to differ somewhat in ultimate size. As most of the hybrid trees have probably not reached old age yet, the ultimate sizes are not yet known. Alan Mitchell (in 'Field Guide to the trees of Britain and Northern Europe') suggests that as planes around 300 years old are still in full vigour, plane trees are likely to grow to be the biggest trees in southern Britain in the future.

Almost all of the largest trees of London are of the hybrid London plane. Many of these are in central London, especially in the Royal Parks and in some of the old city squares. Trees elsewhere include the tree near the Ecology Centre at Carshalton, some trees in Ravensbury Park (Morden), and several in Kew Gardens. Heights of some of these exceed 40 meters, and they form the largest trees in the capital.

Barn Elms tree

The Barn Elms tree

Some of the largest trees owe their great size not just to their age, but because of their good growing situations. The majority of these are near water, corresponding to the preferred riverine habitat of both parents. As a result, the pattern of occurrence of large trees in outer London follows its rivers and streams to some extent; witness the concentration of such trees close to the Thames in Richmond, Kew and Barnes, and along the river Wandle from Carshalton through Morden.

The following is a short selection of noteworthy large trees.

What may be the largest plane tree in Britain is the Great Plane, at Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire. It is possible that its massive trunk is due to two adjacent trees fusing together. It had a girth of 12.4m at 1.3m height in 2018, and a height of 36m.The tallest tree in the country is at Bryanston School in Dorset, 49.67m high in 2015 (measurements from in April 2021).

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