There’s something big and influential at Green Spring Gardens that you may not have noticed. You might say that it hides in plain sight.
Green Spring has a prominent London plane tree behind the site’s Historic House. For shade, beauty, and vigor, it’s hard to find a tree to top the London plane. It is a large deciduous tree that provides visual interest in winter and welcoming shade in summer. The species strongly resembles an American sycamore, but it is actually a crossbreed of two trees from opposite sides of the globe — the American sycamore and the Oriental plane tree. It was first recorded in Spain and England in the 17th century when Oriental plane trees and American plane trees were planted near each other.
Finches love the high canopy of this tree for both nesting and foraging. London plane trees can stretch 70 to 120 feet in height. The bark has brown, green, and gray patches that almost look like camouflage. This bark peels in tubular curls and large flakes, revealing patches of smooth white bark underneath. The peeling bark helps the tree shed damaging pollutants, and this allows it to withstand urban streets and parking lots. That’s why it is considered the world’s most reliable city tree. It is popular along city streets worldwide. London plane trees were widely planted in London during the Industrial Revolution due to their high tolerance to air pollution, and they thrive in Paris and in major urban areas in the United States. In New York City, the species is the tallest street tree and claims the title of Central Park’s oldest tree.
Both male and female flowers are on the same tree. The fruit, called buttonballs, are the size of a Swedish meatball and take six months to mature. They are green in the spring, turn brown in fall, and stay on the tree in the winter. Each contains hundreds of seeds with soft fluff tucked inside the ball, expertly engineered for seed dispersal. The number of balls hanging together will help you determine the type of plane tree: one ball = American sycamore, two = London plane tree, and three or more = Oriental plane tree.
The leaves of the London plane tree are three- to five-lobed and up to 9.8 inches broad. They resemble the leaves of a maple tree, which is why it is also known as the “maple-leaved sycamore.” The wood is fine grained, hard, tough, and almost impossible to split. For this reason, it was once used for oxcart wheels, and it remains a popular choice for indoor furniture, flooring, butcher blocks, veneer, architectural millwork, and woodturning.
Photographs and other information help Green Spring staff estimate that their London plane tree is around 90 years old. Any time of the year that you visit the gardens, make sure to pay this beautiful tree a visit.
Author Sherley Channing is a Green Spring Gardens Master Gardener. Learn more about her favorite tree in the London plane tree video.