The summer of 2023 will be remembered for its dampness. It has been more like a cool and rainy twentieth century summer than the arid broilers we have come to know in recent years. Despite July being one of the soggiest on record, London’s rainfall stats show it is less rainy than Rome and, even more surprisingly, has only half the rainfall of New York City. But the tendency for mild, overcast weather and especially damp, dark winters means the characterisation of London as a wet city is hard to shift.
London’s weather seems unpredictable, but over the long term, it appears to be just what many of the city’s trees like. Regular readers of this blog (you patient lot) will be attuned to London’s enviable population of thriving mature trees, the most familiar of which are the city’s ubiquitous London planes (Platanus x hispanica), a species that thrives on cool winters, plenty of water and occasional heatwaves. They are a defining part of the cityscape, and increasingly are some of its oldest and most historically significant features. A few of the noblest trees have been in situ since the eighteenth century, many more since the nineteenth century, and the vast majority are at least a century old.
Plane trees are everywhere. They are the biggest, tallest and oldest trees in central London, easily identified by their monumental size, their distinctive palmate (or hand-shaped) leaves, and bark that flakes off in scales revealing a patchwork surface akin to camouflage. While many suburban trees are regularly pollarded – their branches regularly lopped 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 mightiest are those that grow close to water. Several on the Thames at Richmond are over 40 metres tall, while even trees further inland have achieved enormous sizes like those in the churchyard of St Paul’s Cathedral.
The trees lining 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 back in 1870. Only a few of the original trees still survive in this exposed location, but every tree that is removed has been replanted over the years. There are other, older planes in central London too, those in Mayfair’s Berkeley Square date from 1789, but 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 the city, nor the UK. Their precise origins are unknown, although several theories have arisen over the years. Some think they are a form of the oriental plane (Platanus orientalis), a species native to south-east Europe and western Asia, but most authorities agree they are a hybrid between the oriental plane and the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), a species found in eastern North America. Their hybrid progeny (Platanus x hispanica) are a product of early globalisation – a botanical intermingling made possible by human trade and transportation. Therefore they are a human-contrived plant with no wild population and no native range – they are a tree of human settlements, the quintessential urban tree.
Oriental planes have been known far beyond their native range for many centuries. It is a tree 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, these 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 does not take kindly to our climate of cool summers and mild winters and is all but unknown here.
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, A. D. Webster in his book ‘London Trees’, 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’.
Over the past two years, I have been travelling around Britain and Ireland researching the remarkable trees that are found in towns and cities across these islands. Many are London planes, and they thrive from Dundee to Belfast and from Newcastle to Cardiff. Some places are almost as richly planted with veteran London planes as London itself. Dublin, Bath, Norwich and Nottingham all have large estates and I discovered some exceptional individual trees in Liverpool, Glasgow, Cambridge and Kilkenny.
I’ll be posting accounts of some of these and along with dozens of other remarkable trees on my new Substack. Here’s a few to whet your appetite, if you’d like to receive future urban tree accounts in your inbox, sign up below or at thestreettree.substack.com – my substack is free. Enjoy!
Parts of this post originally appeared in an article I wrote for the Southbank Centre to coincide with the Among the Trees exhbition at the Hayward Gallery in 2020.