Street Trees Urban landscape

On another Plane

I’ve been working up to the inevitable London Plane (Platanus x acerifolia) post for some time but this, you may be pleased to know, is not it. Instead I’d like to compare notes on one of it’s parents, the Oriental Plane (Platanus orientalis).

Platanus Orientalis foliage
Plane difference: The Oriental Plane (Platanus orientalis) can be distinguished from the London Plane (Platanus x acerifolia) by its more deeply lobed leaves

Two examples of these relatives of the acerifolia (Maple-leaved) tree inhabit Brunswick Square Gardens in the heart of Bloomsbury next door to Coram’s Fields and the fascinating Foundling Museum.

These gardens are what remain of an undoubtedly fine Georgian Square noted as the fictional home of Mr. and Mrs. John Knightley in Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’. Now they are surrounded by more modern developments: no buildings of those romantic days survive and the small public park that is now Brunswick Square Gardens is managed by Camden Council.

One reminder of the past (although very much part of the present) is the enormous and venerable London Plane (P. x acerifolia) that dominates the gardens. This magnificent tree, possibly a remnant from the original development, will have witnessed many changes around the Square and tolerated a varied cocktail of noxious fumes during its centuries on the spot.

In its shadow are two equally remarkable Oriental Planes (P. oriental). This pair – of indeterminate age – are Bonsai trees in comparison. Although much smaller and easier to miss they have arguably more character; they exhibit pot-bellied, burry old boles reminiscient of ancient oaks and have elegantly spreading canopies developed over decades, if that is a suitably ageing unit to use.

Platanus orientalis were classified by Linnaeus and were so named due to their origin in the east. ‘Oriental’ in eighteenth century botanical circles referred to anywhere east of Sweden, in this case the Balkans and Turkey. The Oriental Plane has been a feature and often the focal point of Greek villages, the late Roger Deakin mentions an ancient hollow Plane on the island of Lesbos in his book ‘Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees‘:

‘At what must have been the village centre, the living remains of an enormous oriental plane stood. Its massive trunk was hollow and had broken off ten feet above the ground, perhaps as a result of a lightning bolt. It was charred inside and out, yet fresh living boughs were again springing from a tree that must once have shaded the spring and steam bath.’

Platanus Orientalis, Brunswick Square Gardens, London
Plane to see: One of the Oriental Plane trees (Platanus orientalis) in Brunswick Square Gardens, London showing it's bulbous bole and typical multistemmed, spreading form

My two gnarled ancestors of the London Plane are typical in their growth – according to my research the Oriental Plane can be a large tree sometimes attaining the great size common in its progeny, but often becomes multistemmed and spreading.

I am very fond of these two trees, they are not like other public trees in central London which have to take on trim and uniform shapes defined by triennial pruning regimes laid down by local authorities fearful of the potential damage a splintered arboreal limb might cause a no-win-no-fee solicitor or his clients.

Check out the various Planes of Brunswick Square Gardens on Google street view:

Further reading:

  1. P. orientalis entry on Wikipedia
  2. Corsham Court Oriental plane ‘most spreading tree in UK’ – BBC new story from 07/06/2011
  3. Take a look at my Plane tree set on Flickr.

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