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London Plane (Platanus x hispanica)

General Characteristics / ID Tips

​A tall growing (~35 m) and relatively long-lived hybrid of American Sycamore and Oriental Plane, this is perhaps the most common tree to be found in London and is a familiar sight amongst many town centres or high streets.

Easily identified by the multi-coloured, flaking bark resembling a camouflage-style pattern and the wide maple-like leaves with toothed edges. Also look out for the minute, fine, stiff hairs covering spring leaves or the spherical inflorescences.   

History & Culture

The species is widely believed to have come about through the unintentional hybridisation of Oriental Planes and American Sycamores planted in alternating rows along Victorian promenades.

The oldest London Planes are thought to date from first plantings around 1660-80. The oldest living examples are at Buckden and Ely, Cambridgeshire – both presented to the respective Bishops of the day and reportedly still growing healthily to this day. Indeed, we still do not know the natural lifespan of London Plane as few are known to have died of old age.

Uses

Being a hardy and eye-catching species makes the London Plane an invaluable presence in urban settings, and their tolerance to rigorous pruning means they can be easily managed without adverse effects.

London Plane is valued for its adaptability to urban conditions and resistance to wind and air pollution. The wood used to be popular in making veneers, having an attractive, golden-brown colour with dark brown flecks.

While not boasting major wildlife appeal, its seeds are still a food source for grey squirrels and birds have been known to nest in the tree itself.

Did you know?

The flaking bark is actually a mechanism by which the tree compartmentalises and dispels accumulated pollutants; hence its ability to tolerate high pollution levels in the urban settings where it is most commonly found.

Care & Preservation

The Plane thrives in loamy, sandy or clay soils will full sun or part shade. It is also resistant to wind and relatively high levels of air pollution, making it a fairly hardy choice for cultivation. It also transplants well and can be grown throughout the year.

In city settings, London Plane is typically pruned through pollarding, a technique which dramatically alters the shape and vigour of the tree but which Planes are well adapted to withstand.

Caution is recommended with respect to the stiff hairs growing on spring leaves; as they shed in summer, they can become an irritant if breathed in and have been known to exacerbate breathing difficulties for people with asthma.

Threats & Conservation

​Being so tolerant of pollutants, root compaction and intense management practices such as pollarding, it would be fair to assume that London Planes are relatively free of threats. While this is generally the case here in the UK, Plane trees in Europe and the eastern United States remain blighted by Plane Wilt (Ceratocystis platani).

Caused by wound parasites and identified by a sudden wilting of leaves or canker stains on the bark, Plane Wilt is a particularly aggressive disease known to kill otherwise healthy Plane trees within two to five years.

There is at present no way of controlling the disease with chemicals or other treatments. Encouragingly however, Plane trees in Europe are being developed with in-built resistance to the pathogen. In the meantime, vigilance is the watch-word for preserving a healthy stock of London Planes in the UK.

Maintaining a locally sourced and growth assured tree stock and improved biosecurity at border points to prevent the accidental import of infected trees are the best methods we currently have at our disposal.

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