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Trees of the Bay Area

London Plane

London Plane

Platanus X hispanica (X acerifolia)

Tony Wolcott

This article appeared in the 2015 May issue of Chips & Chatter.

Trees always have an interesting history. This is certainly the case for the London plane tree. In fact the Latin name for this tree has recently changed from Platanus X acerifolia to Platanus X hispanica. A pub lished article with the new name was discovered and verified to pre-date other articles. The common name is problematic which should come as no surprise. There is a reason these names are called ‘common’. A British botanist discovered this fertile hybrid between Platanus orientalis (Oriental plane) and Platanus oc cidentalis (American sycamore). The only connection to London was that the botanist lived there. This tree is a hybrid that commonly naturalizes in nature. There is a wide variance of types and wood can be dark pink to creamy white. Please avoid calling this most common street tree ‘sycamore’. That name is rightful ly reserved for the California sycamore (Platanus racemosa). There is some confusion on the origin of this hybrid, but rest assured the numbers of London plane trees outnumbers any other city street tree. 

Identification is easy. If you come to a tree, look up and start coughing, than it is a London plane tree. Near the coast they are riddled with first anthracnose and then powdery mildew. The leaves are ‘maple’ like, but furry and leathery. The fruit is a round furry ball, often flattened on the ground. The bark is very distinct – mottled almost like a quilt between cream color and brown. Burl or failed branches give it a gnarled wart like appearance popular in children’s stories. This tree gets quite large often arching over entire streets. Unfortunately some like to pollard the tree, cutting back to hardened off knuckles every spring. This practice in the name of uniformity gives the London plane a decapitated look. 

One favorable aspect of Platanus X hispanica is the tree’s toughness. It can handle smog, any soil, lack of water, too much water. It is a very tough tree often root pruned in excess without too much tree dieback. Hence, this tree is popular with the architects who unfortunately don’t have to prune it. The further away you are from the coast the better this tree looks. More than a few streets in Berkeley are lined with London plane trees. 

Turning this wood is a great pleasure, like going through pudding. As is the case with maples and maple like trees such as the London Plane, the grain and the growth rings are almost invisible so the wood is quite homogenous and consistent, not spectacular. Early growth and late growth each year is diffuse porous so that there is little to no distinction on the growth rings. Tools are able to put a fine finish almost without sandpaper. Embellishments such as stain ing, texturizing even painting are all possible. This wood is quite nice as filler wood, especially for seg mented work, similar to Acer negundo or Box elder.

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