Green Spring’s Stately London Plane Tree

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.

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About Fairfax County Park Authority

About Fairfax County Park Authority HISTORY: On December 6, 1950, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors created the Fairfax County Park Authority. The Park Authority was authorized to make decisions concerning land acquisition, park development and operations in Fairfax County, Virginia. To date, 13 park bond referenda have been approved between 1959 and 2016. Today, the Park Authority has 427 parks on more than 23,000 acres of land. We offer 325 miles of trails, our most popular amenity. FACILITIES: The Park system is the primary public mechanism in Fairfax County for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land and resources, areas of historic significance and the provision of recreational facilities and services including: • Nine indoor RECenters with swimming pools, fitness rooms, gyms and class spaces. Cub Run features an indoor water park and on-site naturalist • Eight golf courses from par-3 to championship level, four driving ranges including the new state-of-the-art heated, covered range at Burke Lake Golf Center • Five nature and visitor centers. Also nine Off-Leash Dog Activity areas • Three lakefront parks including Lake Fairfax, Lake Accotink and Burke Lake, with campgrounds at Burke Lake and Lake Fairfax. The Water Mine Family Swimmin’ Hole at Lake Fairfax, Our Special Harbor Sprayground at Lee as well as an indoor water park at Cub Run RECenter • Clemyjontri Park, a fully accessible playground in Great Falls featuring two acres of family friendly fun and a carousel, as well as Chessie’s Big Backyard and a carousel at the Family Recreation Area at Lee District Park • An ice skating rink at Mount Vernon RECenter and the Skate Park in Wakefield Park adjacent to Audrey Moore RECenter • Kidwell Farm, a working farm of the 1930s-era at Frying Pan Farm Park in Herndon, now with historic carousel • Eight distinctive historic properties available for rent • A working grist mill at Colvin Run in Great Falls and a restored 18th century home at Sully Historic Site in Chantilly • A horticulture center at Green Spring Gardens in Annandale • Natural and cultural resources protected by the Natural Resource Management Plan and Cultural Resource Plans, plus an Invasive Management Area program that targets alien plants and utilizes volunteers in restoring native vegetation throughout our community • Picnic shelters, tennis courts, miniature golf courses, disc golf courses, off-leash dog parks, amphitheaters, a marina, kayaking/canoeing center • Provides 263 athletic fields, including 39 synthetic turf fields, and manages athletic field maintenance services at 417 school athletic fields. PARK AUTHORITY BOARD: A 12-member citizen board, appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, sets policies and priorities for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Visit https://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/news2/social-hub/ for Fairfax County Government's Comment Policy.

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