London’s own tree

Canada has the maple, Lebanon has its cedars, and London also has its own tree: the London plane.

Canada maple, Lebanon cedar, London plane

The London plane grows all over town and we all know it. It’s the tree that sheds its bark – very handy when it gets clogged up with city grime, and it gives the trunk a distinctive army-camouflage look. Every autumn the tree produces fruits in the form of little prickly balls that children squash and push down each others’ backs as “itchyballs”.

An itchyball

In fact the London plane is not a natural species, but a hybrid of two trees from different continents: the American sycamore from North America, and the Oriental plane from Asia. Where these two first met and conceived their love child is not clear, but it may have been in Vauxhall Gardens, where the hybrid was first discovered in the seventeenth century by local botanist John Tradescant.

Berkeley Square’s plane trees, planted in 1789

No-one knows how long the London plane can live because none have ever died from old age. The oldest in London is named “Barney”, and has been growing at Barn Elms in Barnes since about 1685 (it’s in the woods, but you can see it from Rocks Lane). Up West, the planes in Mayfair’s Berkeley Square were planted in 1789 – the year of the French revolution – by the Foxite (radical Whig) MP Edward Bouverie, who lived at number 13. And further north, the fine Victorian avenues of London planes that Highbury Fields is known for are wee nippers by comparison, installed only in the 1880s.

Army-camouflage bark

The London plane is easy to trim or “pollard” into shape, it’s timber-yielding, highly resistant to air pollution, can grow in all kinds of soils, and it contributes to London’s ecosystem, providing a handy refuge for birds (although it’s less friendly to insects). More than that, it’s our tree. Sure, it grows worldwide, anywhere from New York to Sydney to Seattle (Brooklyn even has a band named after it), but London is its home, as evidenced by its name.