Nothing is more London than the London plane tree. Its gnarled branches finger the sky and its spreading leaves act as lungs for an increasingly polluted city.
Plane trees have been around for millions of years. Romans watered their roots with wine, endowing them with divine powers. Returning Greek armies gave alms in recognition of their power and under whose dappled, protective branches Hippocrates taught medical advances.
But that wasn’t our London plane whose origins are shrouded in mystery. We know the London plane is a hybrid of the Oriental plane and the Western (or American) Occidental plane, and that it only came into existence in the middle of the 17th century – but probably not in London.
Some say it came from Spain – hence it’s common name Platanus Hispanica – others that it came into being by hybridisation in the garden of John Tradescant in Lambeth or at the Oxford Botanic Garden, Britain’s oldest botanic garden where both Platanus orientalis and Platanus occidentalis were recorded by Jacob Bobart the Younger in 1676. However, a similar variety was also recorded in the Botanic Garden at Montpellier in France some years earlier – so take your pick.
Sadly, the popularity of the plane tree is threatened. Thanks partly to the squeeze on council expenditure, the default tree for planting is no longer the plane but the ginkgo, which doesn’t need to be regularly pollarded and, having survived the Ice Age, and the age of the dinosaurs, has proved one thing beyond doubt – it has longevity on its side.
Number 1-90 in Vic Keegan’s Lost London series can be found here. The London plane tree in the photo, taken by Vic, is in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
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