Features and characters of the individual
Oriental plane trees: facts and stories
Be careful around oriental plane trees: people have been known to fall in love at first sight! In Ancient Greek literature, the king of Persia, Xerxes, is said to have encountered one of these plane trees whilst on a war expedition. The king was touched by the tree’s beauty. He fell so madly in love with it that he covered the tree in gold and was filled with jealousy at the thought of leaving it... So much so that he abandoned his campaign to invade Greece.
In Handel’s opera based on this legend (composed in London in 1738), Xerxes sings the opening aria “Ombra mai fu” to an oriental plane tree, with the lyrics translating to: “Never was the shade of any plant dearer, more lovely, or more sweet”. Perhaps the composer wrote the music in the deep, golden shade of a London plane tree for inspiration!
Did you know?
A plane tree’s seeds are hidden inside spiky balls that can be seen hanging on the tree for many months, eventually falling to the ground at the end of summer or sometime during autumn. Once they have fallen from the tree, you can break them open to find the seeds inside. Each of these little spiky balls contains a large number of seeds. They are all tightly packed in the middle of the ball, each with a small tuft of silky red hair.
These hairs act like mini parachutes: they help with dispersion by catching the wind and allowing the seed to be carried away over many miles. Plane trees are a good example of trees employing ingenious ways of moving around – they refuse to be kept in one place!
Seeds from plane trees are amazingly tiny, sometimes measuring as small as 1mm. Each mini seed is encoded with the tree’s entire structure and genetic makeup. As the seed germinates and grows over the years, it is this very blueprint at allows it to develop into a mature tree. This small miracle can be said for all trees.
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 an oriental plane tree
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 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
Specifics about this tree
This tree is one of the only survivors of a pretty little wood that once occupied the entire space between Rue Forestière, Rue Américaine and Rue Buchholtz (see aerial photos in the image gallery). Previously surrounded by other trees, it now grows surrounded by buildings 4–6 storeys high. This tree has witnessed its little woodland home transform over the decades, from the 1950s to the present day, into the urban park that we see today. (*ou tout début des années 60 ? check urbanisme) Over this time, the park has become increasingly popular with visitors.
The tree has adapted to the changes in its environment. Its branches have grown in optimal directions to find the best available light. Its trunk originally grew straight up to claim its own section of the skyline, before then splitting into three large branches growing in different directions (presumably to fill a gap that opened in the canopy and get the most sunlight). These three have also branched off in some places, avoiding a neighbouring tree to seek light elsewhere. This is visual proof of how the tree is alive and adapting at all times. It still manages to reach the light and enjoy the sun’s rays, and its astonishing structure is like a written history of its life.
In this slightly dark park, this tree captures the light, filters it, and then diffuses light out to the surrounding space. The soft shade that it casts kindles a sense of serenity and comfort. Numerous pedestrians pay visits to this spot, and now this plane tree is a victim of its own popularity. With so many people visiting the park, the soil has become compacted and depleted. This tree’s roots lack nutrients, air, and water, meaning that it is now less resistant to disease and pests.
If you do visit this specimen, try to avoid walking on the ground directly around it; this will help prolong its life and its presence here in the park.
(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