London’s infamous mild and damp climate means that it has – somewhat surprisingly, perhaps – an enviable population of thriving mature urban trees. These trees are a defining part of the cityscape, in some cases outlasting the buildings they were planted to complement.
In central London, many of these trees are London planes (Platanus x hispanica). Planes have distinctive palmate or hand-shaped leaves, and bark that flakes off, revealing a patchwork surface akin to camouflage. While many of these trees are regularly pollarded – their branches lopped-off to maintain a regular size and shape – others, particularly those in parks and open spaces, are left to attain their ‘natural’ size, which can be very large indeed. Some of the biggest and tallest trees in London are planes.
The trees that line the South Bank from the London Eye to the Oxo Tower are all planes. They were planted some time after the Festival of Britain in 1951, so are relative youngsters compared to some of those on the North side of the river, which were planted in 1870. The trees along the Victoria Embankment, from Blackfriars to the Houses of Parliament, were the first in the city to be systematically planted in a recognisably modern scheme. While there are other, older planes in the capital – such as those in Mayfair’s Berkeley Square, which date from 1789 – it was the trees along the Embankment that caught the Victorian imagination and led to planes becoming London’s most popular tree.
London plane trees are not native to London, nor to the UK. Their precise origins are unknown. Some think that they are a form of the Oriental Plane (Platanus orientalis), a species native to south-east Europe and western Asia, but most botanists agree they are a hybrid between the Oriental Plane and the American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), a species found in eastern North America. These trees are in fact a product of early globalisation – a botanical intermingling made possible by human trade and transportation.
The Oriental Plane has been known far beyond its native range for many centuries. It is a plant that – along with apples, mulberries and walnuts – followed in the wake of human migrants and merchants. Its primary value was not economic or nutritional, however. Instead, this large tree with its wide spreading canopy was often planted for shade, and was much prized in latitudes more southerly than London. The American Sycamore, on the other hand, was ‘discovered’ by colonists who, in the mid-17th century, sent seeds back to Europe. In one Enlightenment garden, probably in Spain or southern France, the two transcontinental plane species met, and through this chance encounter conceived a vigorous hybrid plant.
Britons of the late 19th and early 20th century developed creation myths for this hybrid tree, with England at their centre. One of these myths held that the original hybridisation happened in the Lambeth garden of John Tradescant the Younger, a 17th-century botanical collector and gardener. Another claimed that it occurred in the Oxford Botanic Garden. Neither of these theories hold water, however – the American Sycamore is not able to grow in our climate of cool summers and mild winters.
London’s love affair with the hybrid plane started on the Embankment. It became an emblem of the modern city, and was recorded in countless 19th-century photographs and paintings. The inspiration for this tree-lined avenue came from European cities like Paris, Brussels and Berlin. Paris’s redevelopment by Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the previous decades had introduced broad, plane-tree-lined ‘grands boulevards’ into contemporary city planning. London was in fact fairly late to the party. Before the late 19th century, the city’s trees had been largely confined to squares and walks – places such as Kensington Gardens and Greenwich Park.
The Victoria Embankment became the model for other grand, tree-lined thoroughfares across the burgeoning city. During the decades between the development of the Embankment and the First World War, planes were planted at an eye-watering rate. By 1920, one commentator was able to say that 60% of London’s street trees were planes. Soon, civic leaders from around the country – and beyond – wanted to emulate London’s new found arboreal grandeur. It was during this period that the hybrid plane tree, so abundant in London, was re-exported throughout Britain and the English speaking world newly styled as the ‘London Plane’.
Paul Wood is an artist and author of London is a Forest and London’s Street Trees.
Among the Trees, is a Hayward Gallery group exhibition exploring our relationship with trees and forests.
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