The Gaia Tree
Plane trees: facts and stories
Plane trees used to be considered sacred in Greece, and they were even worshiped on the island of Crete. Ancient cultures here saw them as the living embodiment of Gaia / Mother Earth. They were considered a symbol of healing, as they always marked sources of water (the source of all life).
They also symbolised peace, because their large, hand-shaped (palmate) leaves appeared to reach out towards humans. Their thousands of open, welcoming hands combine to form giant domes of soft shade. These flat, broad (platus in Ancient Greek) leaves inspired the scientific name for plane trees: platanus.
Planes were also a symbol of regeneration, because their bark would peel off like the skin of a snake, showing the tree’s vigour and ability to heal. Just like snakes, plane trees have also been associated with medicine. Hippocrates, the famous physician and philosopher, is said to have made the Hippocratic oath and also dispensed care under a plane tree’s foliage.
Did you know?
Planes are part of a family of trees that have existed on Earth for 100–145 million years. They are also a species with specimens breaking records in terms of lifespan. The oldest known plane tree can be found on the island of Kos in Greece. It is estimated to be over 2500 years old. Oriental plane trees have the longest lifespan of all plane trees.
Planes are masters of time.
They retain an element of their youth: the branches furthest away from the trunk have bark that looks much younger, as if it were on a younger plane tree! And they bear the experience of their years and the past: the main branches coming from the trunk have more mature bark with a camouflage-like appearance. Seasoned specimens can then start to look very old when their trunk is gradually covered with lichens and moss. Planes make a continuous connection between the present and future too, by providing a range of benefits that are essential to our lives and survival.
Technically, all trees have these abilities: but plane trees exhibit them mostly clearly!
The benefits of oriental plane trees
It’s hard to find a tree that’s more useful in towns and cities: it performs numerous services and conducts all of them efficiently.
Very commonly seen around cities, this familiar tree species is an all-round marvel. It is a real champion when it comes to absorbing air pollution and filtering fine particles from the air. It is very good at regulating its surrounding climate: creating a cooling effect and adding pleasant humidity. It also casts light shade. All of this is done in a gentle, discrete fashion.
Plane trees are known for their great resistance to all the stresses that arise from urban environments: air pollution, compacted soil, dryness, and drastic trimming. They are some of our best allies in making urban life more liveable, whether planted in playgrounds, public squares, or along busy avenues.
How to recognise plane trees
often a combination of three colours: grey-green, ochre-brown and cream; with large patches of scales with curved edges as they start to flake off (desquamate), creating a camouflage pattern
large (12–25cm), with deep indents forming 5 parts (lobes) arranged like fingers on a hand (palmately lobed); Coarsely serrated edges; fall from the tree in autumn (deciduous)
soft green in spring/summer; ochre in autumn; and no foliage in winter
achene, ball-shaped and spiky, with felty seeds like pompoms; clearly visible on the tree in winter
about this tree
This tree is breathtakingly beautiful!
It is hard to find a tree with more beautiful branches in Brussels: growing in the middle of a large open space for all of its life, this plane tree has developed an impressive structure of branches that spread out in all directions. This tree’s trunk is quite short, stocky and strong, holding up a huge dome of foliage with a diameter of 27m. This plane is wider than it is tall (height: 20m).
It’s a real living monument! This specimen serves as a reminder to us that trees are the tallest and largest living things on the planet, and that their presence stretches through time very easily.
This tree has the silhouette of a tree that has grown without restrictions. Its huge branches stretch out horizontally, bend downwards and touch the ground. Branches that reach the ground start to take root and then grow vertically upwards again. This phenomenon is called ‘layering’. These vertically growing branches will eventually become the trunks of independent trees. Collectively, they come to form a colony of plane trees, with the single giant dome of the original tree expanding to an even larger temple.
This plane tree invites passers-by to slow down and take a moment of contemplation. Whenever you pass by the entrance to No. 12 on Avenue du Derby, make sure to pause for a spell and take a few deep breaths. Look at how soft its shade is, especially when the tree is in full sun and the rays filter through to light the dome of foliage from within. Listen to the feelings in your body.
This tree has such a strong presence that you don’t even need to get too close. This is better for prolonging the tree’s life too: approaching the trunk risks trampling its fragile roots, which are found only a few centimetres below the grass. Out of respect for the tree and gratitude for the property’s owner, remain at the entrance and be thankful that this green space hasn’t been hidden away from the public.
(Story and photos created by Priscille Cazin- Sylvolutions)
This portrait is:
- Enriched with an illustration from the Belgian Federal State Collection on permanent loan to the Meise Botanical Garden.
- An initiative of Christos Doulkeridis, Mayor of Ixelles , Audrey Lhoest, portfolio holder for Environment, Green Spaces and Planting, and Tourism and the Ixelles Communal executive