Origins of the London Plane Tree

Origins of the London Plane Tree
Origins of the London Plane Tree

The tree originated prior to 1700. It appears to have arisen as a natural hybrid of the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and an Oriental plane (Platanus orientalis). This seems to have occurred when John Tradescant the Younger brought American sycamore seeds or plants from America and planted them near an Oriental plane that was already growing in his South Lambeth garden in England. The Oriental plane had been introduced to England around a century earlier.

The new hybrid was first mentioned in historical records at the Oxford Botanical Garden either in 1663 or 1700 although botanical experts disagree as to the actual date. The garden had received one of the new hybrids from the Tradescants. The tree at Oxford was still living in 1990, and was considered to be the oldest known London plane.

In fact, botanical experts believe the natural hybrids could have arisen independently at various other locations in England and Europe over the years.

There appears to be no record of the London plane’s introduction to America, but it was apparently grown in the U.S. during Colonial times.

The London planes seen in Europe, England, and the U.S. aren’t identical by any means. One expert referred to the trees as “a group of hybrids.” Those grown in America more closely resemble the American sycamore, while those found in other countries are more like the Oriental plane.

Description of the London Plane Tree

This large, striking tree typically reaches 70 to 100 feet in height and 65 to 80 feet wide. It can be 20 feet in circumference. Compared to the American sycamore, this is more narrow but of a similar size. However, it also grows somewhat slower than the native species.

The tree features a tall, broad, round crown with a long, straight, upright trunk. Overall, the London plane does resemble the American sycamore.

The conspicuous bark is the most distinctive feature of this remarkable tree. It is mostly a light cream, but can also display varying shades of green, gray, and tan on older trees. This can be mottled with other colors as well, such as brownish-red.

The inner bark is typically light. The bark peels in large flakes, more so than the American sycamore.

The alternate, large, coarse leaves have triangular lobes that are toothed and nearly as wide as they are long. These resemble those of maples. Typically wider than long, the foliage is six to seven inches in length and eight to ten inches wide. The young leaves are hairy.

The young twigs are densely hairy, but become smooth with age. The dark red, rather inconspicuous blossoms emerge with the leaves during April and May. They form round heads. The male and females are separate but are on the same tree.

The brown, ball-shaped, bristly fruits dangle on long stems and remain on the plant over the winter. These are typically in groups of two to three but sometimes there will be six per group. Unlike the American sycamore, these are rarely solitary.

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