Gardener’s Notebook: how to see London’s oldest plane trees, which have outlived 16 monarchs

 (George Hudson)
(George Hudson)

You probably encounter London’s 10,000 plane trees when you’re seeking shelter from sun or rain, or when the city collectively sneezes thanks to the explosive release of pollen in spring.

But you might appreciate them most at this time of year when their leaves begin their transition from green through yellow, orange and bronze before falling to the ground in their millions.

Peter Holloway is one of London’s resident tree experts and has been working with them for 40 years. He is also a London plane enthusiast.

He tells me that London hasn’t always had plane trees. “The London plane (Platanus x hispanica) is a hybrid tree, a migrant child of two parents from different parts of the world. It shares the genetics of the oriental plane (Platanus orientalis), which originates in central Europe and the Middle East, and the American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis)”.

The theory is that this hybrid tree started life at the nursery of John Tradescant in Vauxhall. Many were then planted throughout the city in the 18th and 19th centuries because of their ability to stand up to challenging urban conditions such as trampled roots, poor soil, a lack of water and pollution.

Holloway takes me on a tour of some of London’s most remarkable plane trees starting just south of Petersham Meadows in a waterside location best suited to London planes.

I recommend spending the day with a tree expert to change how you see the world.

I quickly became obsessive about guessing the height and age of the trees we passed on our way to see what Holloway believes to be London’s tallest plane trees.

The pair lie just along the towpath towards Richmond at the junction with Old Palace Lane, standing about 46 metres tall — just a few metres shy of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.

But if measured by girth, rather than height, the title of biggest — and possibly oldest — London plane belongs to a corpulent giant known as ‘Barnie’, next to the WWT London Wetland Centre in Smoky Wood, Barn Elms.

Enter the woods through a small gate, pass a clearing and in the centre of the woodland is a tree measuring four metres in diameter and believed to have been planted more than 300 years ago.

It’s humbling to think that almost all trees in the capital have been planted since this one first took root.

They may be a common sight, but it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate the sheer breadth of history these trees have lived through as you’re kicking through a pile of their crisp leaves this autumn.