Plane Tree History: Where Do London Plane Trees Come From

By: Mary H. Dyer, Credentialed Garden Writer

London plane trees are tall, elegant specimens that have graced the busy streets of the city for generations. Here’s what plant historians have to say about the history of the plane tree.

London Plane Tree History

It appears that London plane trees are unknown in the wild. So, where do London plane trees come from? The current consensus among horticulturalists is that the London plane tree is a hybrid of the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and the Oriental plane tree (Platanus orientalis).

The Oriental plane tree has been cultivated around the world for centuries, and is still favored in many parts of the world. Interestingly, the Oriental plane tree is actually a native of southeastern Europe. The American plane tree is newer to the horticultural world, having been cultivated since the sixteenth century.

The London plane tree is newer still, and its cultivation has been traced to the latter part of the seventeenth century, although some historians believe the tree was cultivated in English parks and gardens as early as the sixteenth century. The plane tree was initially planted along London streets during the industrial revolution, when the air was black with smoke and soot.

When it comes to plane tree history, one thing is certain: the London plane tree is so tolerant of urban environments that it has been a fixture in cities throughout the world for hundreds of years.

Plane Tree Facts

Although the history of the plane tree remains cloaked in mystery, there are a few things we know for sure about this tough, long-lived tree:

London plane tree information tells us the tree grows at a rate of 13 to 24 inches (33-61 cm.) per year. Mature height of the London plane tree is 75 to 100 feet (23-30 m.) with a width of about 80 feet (24 m.).

According to a census conducted by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, at least 15 percent of all trees lining city streets are London plane trees.

The London plane tree sports peeling bark that adds to its overall interest. The bark promotes resistant to parasites and insects, and also helps the tree cleanse itself of urban pollution.

The seed balls are favored by squirrels and hungry songbirds.

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Read more about Plane Tree


The Platanaceae are a family of flowering plants belonging to the order Proteales. This family has been recognized by almost all taxonomists, and is sometimes called the "plane-tree family". The family consists of only a single extant genus Platanus, with eight known species. [2] The plants are tall trees, native to temperate and subtropical regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The hybrid London plane is widely planted in cities worldwide.

The plane-tree is referenced in Pliny the Younger's letter to Domitius Apollinaris as part of his description of his Tuscan Villa located somewhere in Tuscany in the first century.

London Plane: A Tree With Gritty Roots

The London plane tree is able to withstand the many assaults of urban life. It is often found squeezed tightly into tree pits surrounded by impermeable asphalt and concrete, making rain absorption difficult. Despite their potential size when fully grown, the trees adapt remarkably to cramped quarters, even while overshadowed by buildings and other structures. Often, they are pruned to within an inch of their lives to fit under phone lines or to avoid streetlights. They survive not only runoff from salted roads but also a consistent barrage of raw fertilizer by neighborhood cats and dogs.

And yet the London plane is everywhere throughout New York City. In fact, the last Street Tree census conducted by the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation found that more than 15 percent of all street trees were London planes. They are far more than just pretty plants these trees provide energy savings and measurably improved air quality — to say nothing of the acres of valuable habitat they provide for people and animals alike.

It is interesting to note that the London plane tree is actually a hybrid between two tree species, the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and the Oriental plane tree (Platanus orientalis). The tree looks enough like its American parent that it is frequently mistaken for a sycamore, as both have smooth grayish brown bark, which exfoliates to reveal a tan or pale green trunk beneath. The basic explanation for this unusual adaptation is the bark’s lack of elasticity it cannot expand as rapidly as the tree inside it does. But this peeling bark is a useful adaptation, which helps to eliminate harmful insects and parasites. Though the tree may look as if it suffers from a bad sunburn, the patchy, peeling bark actually works in its favor.

The original London plane tree was probably discovered by John Tradescant the Younger in his mid-17th-century London garden. Tradescant was an avid plant collector and botanist, a prime example of the English aristocracy’s longstanding fascination with plants. The handsome Oriental plane tree, a native of southeastern Europe, was well known in England dating back to the mid-16th century, and Tradescant’s botanist father may already have had a specimen at his estate when the lovely, and more recently discovered, American sycamore was introduced.

The details of this fairy-tale romance have faded over time, but the resulting love child — the London plane tree — quickly demonstrated a great tolerance for the grimy streets of London. Its offspring were consequently planted throughout the British Isles, Europe and, finally, North America. They have an equal tolerance for urban life on this side of the Atlantic and have flourished here happily ever after.

London plane trees growing in parks can reach upward of 100 feet tall. Unfortunately, those growing between asphalt slabs along streets such as Cross Bay Boulevard in Queens, or Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, may reach a gnarly and premature old age, once they have grown to about 40 or 50 feet.

London Plane

Tree Size: 65-115 ft (20-35 m) tall, 3-5 ft (1-1.5 m) trunk diameter

Average Dried Weight: 35 lbs/ft 3 (560 kg/m 3 )

Color/Appearance: Similar to maple, the wood of London Plane trees is predominantly comprised of the sapwood, with some darker heartwood streaks also found in most boards. (Though it is not too uncommon to also see entire boards of heartwood too.) The sapwood is white to light pinkish tan, while the heartwood is a darker reddish brown. London Plane also has very distinct ray flecks present on quartersawn surfaces—giving it a freckled appearance—and it is sometimes even called “Lacewood,” though it bears little botanical relation to the tropical species of Lacewood.

Grain/Texture: London Plane has a fine, even texture that’s very similar to maple. The grain is usually straight.

Endgrain: Diffuse-porous small to medium pores, numerous solitary and in radial multiples and clusters tyloses occasionally present, though not easily seen with lens growth rings distinct due to lighter color of latewood and decreased pore frequency medium to very wide rays easily visible without lens, noded, wide spacing parenchyma rare or absent.

Rot Resistance: London Plane is rated as non-durable to perishable regarding decay resistance, and is susceptible to insect attack.

Workability: Overall, London Plane works easily with both hand and machine tools, though tearout can sometimes occur in the rays of perfectly quartersawn sections during planing. London Plane turns, glues, and finishes well.

Odor: No characteristic odor.

Allergies/Toxicity: Besides the standard health risks associated with any type of wood dust, no further health reactions have been associated with Sycamore. See the articles Wood Allergies and Toxicity and Wood Dust Safety for more information.

Pricing/Availability: Usually moderately priced if available domestically, though London Plane is commonly sold as quartersawn boards, which can increase the cost.

Sustainability: This wood species is not listed in the CITES Appendices or on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Common Uses: Veneer, plywood, interior trim, pallets/crates, flooring, furniture, carvings, and other small specialty wood objects.

Comments: Not to be confused with with European Sycamore—which is actually just a species of maple (Acer pseudoplatanus)—London Plane is a hybrid of American Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and Oriental Plane (P. orientalis).

Scans/Pictures: A special thanks to Steve Earis for providing the wood sample and turned photo of this wood species.

Bloodgood Planetree

Bloodgood planetree (Platanus × acerifolia 'Bloodgood')

Bloodgood planetree, a selection of the tough London planetree that is widely planted in urban areas, is a large shade tree with a broad open crown and bark that exfoliates to reveal patches that may be creamy white, yellow, or olive-colored. The signature ornamental feature of this huge tree is its brown bark, which exfoliates in irregular pieces to reveal creamy white inner bark. 'Bloodgood' has dark green foliage and is reported to have some resistance to the problematic anthracnose disease of sycamores.

Street: Appropriate for restricted size planting sites recommended by the City of Chicago Urban Tree Planting List
Park/Residential: Appropriate for landscaped planting sites including public parks, residential property, golf courses, cemeteries, etc.
Legacy: For plantings with an expected life span of more than 60 years retained 50 percent or more climate suitability in models for the decade 2080
N/R +35 yrs: Not recommended for plantings with an expected life span of more than 35 years

Watch the video: London Plane Trees vs. Sycamores

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