Plane trees of London

Introduction

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Plane trees are among the most numerous large street and park trees planted in Greater London. The frequency of the occurrence of the common hybrid plane within the city has given rise to the common English name for these of 'London plane'.

History

The Oriental plane, the only one known in cultivation from the Old World, has been cultivated in gardens for millennia, especially in their native range of south-east Europe and Western Asia. The first plane trees known to have been planted in Britain (from about 1650) were of this species. Most trees seen in London however belong to the group that is often described as the London Plane, a group of hybrids derived from crosses between P. orientalis and Platanus occidentalis. This cross is thought to have occurred in about 1650 in the south of Europe. The first of these trees were planted in England from about 1680.

Part of avenue at Battersea Park

Part of avenue at Battersea Park

The oldest London planes in London are known to go back as far as the later 18th century. They include some trees at Kew Gardens, which are dated to the 1770s (Bean). The tree at Barn Elms Recreation Grounds, and the huge tree by the Sutton Ecology Centre at Carshalton are probably also from the late 18th century. Among the known oldest Oriental planes is one at Osterley Park, dated to 1759, and one at Kew Gardens, of similar age.

Few other trees exist in London that are as old as this. Most 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 development in the earlier 20th century.

Tree plantings

London planes are present today in numerous parks, and also 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, and because London was one of the first cities to use them for this purpose, they have taken the city's name.

Trees in parks are sometimes grown as single specimens. However a common use was as avenue and boundary trees. Some of the largest and best such 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 the trees get pruned heavily to the typical 'lollipop' shapes that 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. The use of plane trees in roads is now being gradually reduced in favour of smaller trees.

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.

Oldest trees

The oldest trees in London are reliably known to be at least 250 years old. The noteworthy ones include the following;

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 the largest trees of London are of the hybrid London plane. Many of the largest specimens are in central London, in the Royal Parks and in some of the old city squares. Among the other large ones are 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 the large specimens 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 trees by the Thames in Richmond, Kew and Barnes, and by 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, though it is possible that its massive trunk is due to two adjacent trees fusing together. The tallest plane tree in the country is at Bryanston School in Dorset.

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31-October-2009