Tree of The Week: London Plane

Each week we will bring you a new tree species to learn and look out for. We are starting with the famous and easy to spot London Plane.

The London Plane tree accounts for over half of the city's tree population and can easily be identified by its famous camouflage-patterned bark. Although its common name is the London Plane, the species also grows in large numbers all over Europe, in Australia and in North and South America – in the city of New York its leaf is used as the symbol for the Parks Department.

It was planted in London en masse at the time of the Industrial Revolution (18th Century), a time when London was black with soot. Few trees could survive this pollution, but the London Plane is well equipped for urban life, it has a special bark that means it can thrive in air pollution - which works well for a city nicknamed ‘The Big Smoke’. Its bark is brittle and, it drops off and flakes into a patchy camouflage like appearance. This ability to shed grimy layers to cleanse itself of pollutants enables it to remain healthy. “The bark of the London Plane, like that of many species, is dotted with tiny pores, a millimetre of two across, called lentils, which allow the exchange of gases. If these become clogged, the tree suffers.” Jonathan Drori. The defence feature produces what we like to think of as a beautiful piece of nature’s art.

30 or so Planes were planted in Berkeley Square in 1789 and are among the oldest in London. One of these trees hit the headlines in 2009 for being valued by the London Tree Officers Association at £750,000, it has a circumference of over 6 foot and is 223 years old. Valued by a system known as CAVAT – Capital Asset Valuation of Amenity Trees –used by councils and recognised by the courts to protect trees at risk from being cut down (more on this another time). This expensive London Plane is not London’s most expensive tree, we will be featuring that tree shortly 😉.

Its leaf is similar in appearance to a maple leaf. In winter you will recognise the tree for its stubbly appearance as it is heavily pollarded (a pruning system involving the removal of the upper branches of a tree, which promotes the growth of a dense head of foliage and branches) due to it’s huge size for urban management. Right now you can see the little baubles of seed balls (see last image) which can help you identify the tree in winter.

As well as Berkeley Square, you can find the London Plane lining the Thames, a large number of old Planes planted in Highbury Fields, Islington and many streets around London.

Its safe to say that the London Plane is the ideal urban tree the shade and lungs of the city.