Not only is it difficult enough to find a patch of urban ground that isn’t stony, I now discover that the poor old London Plane tree (Platanus x hispanica aka the bauble tree) is generally infertile. According to the first-born’s new tree book:
Female flowers mature to give the familiar, rough football-like plane fruits. The seeds are rarely viable, however, for London Plane is a hybrid between two trees, the Oriental Plane P. orientalis of Asia and south-east Europe, and the American Plane P. occidentalis. Where and when the hybrid appeared is a matter of controversy…
Some sources say this hybrid between the Oriental Plane and the American Plane originated in Spain or France around 1650, but there is also a possibility that it originated in the Tradescant nursery garden in Lambeth, south London. John Tradescendant the younger (1608 -1662) was a gardener to Charles I and inherited the nursery his Father had established for the study of plants. Both P. occidentalis and P. orientalis are on record as having grown in this garden, so it is a real possibility that the London Plane did originate here. The first description of the tree in Great Britain, which we have in writing, is from the Oxford Botanical Gardens in 1670.
There are all sorts of other fascinating snippets – the fact that the peeling of the bark helps the tree survive heavily polluted environments because it prevents the pores becoming blocked; the bark boiled in vinegar is allegedly efficacious in cases of dysentery, chilblains, hernias and toothache etc etc.
But my discovery of the day is the fabulous Plane trees site of I.M. Chengappa devoted to virtually every imaginable aspect of plane trees in London in all their varieties, which include six sub-forms of the London plane itself as well as four other main forms and other variants and clones.
I have a new mission, courtesy of the Specimen trees page. It gives detailed directions – such as “Two specimens of P. orientalis stand in a shrub bed in the car park of Sainsbury’s store, Balham” – as well as map grid references. My mission is to seek out and photograph these variant baubles in all their London glory.
Which actually shouldn’t take too long since most can be found at Kew Gardens, only a few stops away by train.
And lest one feel too sorry for the weak-seeded plane, just have a look at the hybrid vigour with which they take root (from as little as a stick being used as a stake, apparently) once they do get going.