Saturday, May 13, 2006

By: Ali Ismail
0778-842 5262 (United Kingdom)

Top: A young Oriental Plane tree
Middle: An American Plane tree
Bottom: A magnificent and mature London Plane tree


We should keep our eyes open when walking in London’s parks

One of the many surprises and shocks of migrating from the Asian tropics and sub-tropics is surely the enormous difference in the vegetation. Plant life at latitude 51.5, the latitude of London, is vastly different from that found in South Asia.

During my early childhood years, passed under a scorching tropical sun, I simply assumed that trees and other members of the plant kingdom grew throughout the year. Therefore, after relocation to London, I was almost amazed to discover that I was in a region of the world where the trees go to sleep for fully half the year.

Talking of London itself, when I look at the picture postcards on sale in London’s newsagents, I find that the symbols of the giant metropolis tend to be of the Queen, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower Bridge and other “touristy” sights. Well, that may be well for the two week holidaymaker sending a postal greeting to his sister-in-law in Austria but that, I think, is not how most resident Londoners see their city.

To me the symbol of London always has been, is and will probably continue to be the London Plane tree. And what a symbol it is! It encapsulates all that the anti-liberal crowd – the “racially conscious white”, the “we want our country back” and the militantly anti-immigrant people – hate, namely a fusion of the East and the West under Western European skies, which is vigorous and long-lived and highly successful.

On the subject of longevity, the London Plane is one of the few trees in the world whose life span is unknown to botanists. The reason for that is that this particular kind of plant life has not been around for long enough for its natural life expectancy to be ascertained. No London Plane tree has ever died of old age. Those that have expired were killed by injuries or by diseases, or by both, not by Father Time. The very oldest ones are about 400 years extant.

As I write I am full of the memories of a magnificent specimen soaring up more than a hundred feet from the soil of a communal garden facing my third floor bedroom window in South Kensington. It was radiantly healthy with well-nourished leaves throughout the summer and it slept with dignity for the duration of the cold months. Those were, in many regards, difficult and unhappy years and that tree and the other London planes around it gave me messages of hope and strength and the inspiration to believe that I would prevail against all the odds.

I think that that old friend and the others were probably right.

Wikipedia, the Internet (free) enclopaedia states:
“The London Plane or Hybrid Plane is a hybrid species of the genus Platanus. The scientific name is Planatus + hispanica, synonym Platanus × acerifolia. It is usually thought to be a hybrid of the Oriental Plane P. orientalis with the American Plane (American sycamore) P. occidentalis. Some authorities think that it may be a cultivar of P. orientalis, but there is little evidence for this.
“It forms a very large growing, deciduous tree to about 40m tall. The leaves are large and maple-like. The flowers and fruit are borne in balls, growing to be about 3 cm across. The tree is often noted for its peeling bark, leaving a dappled trunk.

“London Plane (Platanus × hispanica)
“It is first recorded as occurring in Spain in the 17th Century,where the Oriental Plane and the American Plane had been planted in proximity to one another. The leaf and flower characteristics are intermediate between the two parent species. The hybrid is fertile, and seedlings are occasionally found near mature trees.
“It is very tolerant of atmospheric pollution and root compaction, and for this reason it is a popular urban roadside tree. It is now extensively cultivated in most temperate latitudes as an ornamental and parkland tree, and is the most common tree in many northern cities – not just London but New York City, Paris and many others. It has a greater degree of winter cold tolerance than the Oriental Plane, and is less susceptible to disease than the American Plane.
“It was featured on the television programme Seven Natural Wonders as one of the wonders of the London area.
“The leaf of the London Plane is the symbol of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreations and is prominently featured on signs and buildings in public parks across the city.”
When walking around Kew Gardens a decade or so ago after reading a handbook on British trees, I was interested to find examples not just of the London Plane but also its two derivates – the Oriental Plane and the American Plane.
The Oriental Plane is a (very) large tree and is not at all suitable for most private gardens. It has thick sinuous branches which spread widely in a horizontal direction over dozens of yards. Its height is not particularly impressive. Clearly, it is an ornamental tree and can be grown, in the usual course of events, only in large parks such as Kew Gardens.
The American sycamore (American Plane), by contrast, is a more linear sort of tree. It is taller and slimmer and straighter. It can be grown in large private gardens.
What is of interest to people like us, with our long-standing tradition of cousin marriage, is that both the antecedants of the London Plane are not particularly disease resistant and neither was capable of escaping unscathed from the ravages of the notorious and noxious pea-green-soup London fogs which preceded the Clean Air Acts. Those poisonous atmospheric vapours killed plants as well as hapless human beings.
The London Plane, however, survived even the most appalling fogs which afflicted the capital city and was, for that reason, the tree of preference for planting throughout Central London and its suburbs before the aforesaid laws were passed. Hyde Park, throughout most of its length and breadth, possesses even now no other tree. The famous Dorchester Plane Tree standing guard over the entrance of the well known hotel of that name opposite Hyde Park is known over the world.
The lesson for us is, I submit, that in human life as well as in the plant kingdom, hybrid vigour is a desirable survival characteristic which should be sought after by persons who want to thrive in an increasingly demanding world. The era of consanguinous marriages and parenthood, matrimonial or otherwise, should, I submit, be on its way out.
Not everyone agrees. Irene Elmer of Enfield says: “I like them (London Planes) but would sooner have natural ones (trees). I like the greenery. The pollution resistance does not change my view of them.”
The ancient Chinese classic, The Water Margin, states that wise men learn deep lessons about life and how it should be lived from the natural world. Although the London Plane is a man-made tree, it is nevertheless a part of nature and is trying to teach us something if we will only pay it heed before it is too late.
This article was published in the Bangla Mirror, the first English language weekly for the United Kingdom's Bangladeshis - read all over the world, from the Arctic to the Antarctic.