The camera zoomed in from an improbable height above the royal Bentley purring back from St Paul’s. On the way it encountered the branches of a plane tree and saw right through them, through sadly deleted leaves and sagging shoots, in a way you never can through the canopy of a healthy tree. London’s planes are sick, some of them very sick, and the prospect of their decline is too dreadful to contemplate.
Is it a new disease, as some suggest, or the occasional weakness that strikes them under peculiar circumstances ? Does it relate to a hot dry early spring followed by a long cold and wet April and most of May – and June? I used to worry about an alley of London planes I planted in central France; in some years, particularly in wet springs, their new shoots died back as we see them doing in London now, but 20 years on they are robust young trees.
Central London has been verging on a monoculture of planes since its elms died nearly forty years ago. We forget how important they were. Many of the finest trees in Hyde Park, for instance, were field elms, with their crowning fans of branches, their flaring skirts and their pale gold leaves almost to the end of the year. London has few oaks and not nearly enough limes. The resilience of the plane, it resistance to pollution as well as its majestically graceful canopy and its huge reptilian trunk, have given it the status of the London tree.
The local authorities have been imaginative in the past few years with their street trees. We see rowans and alders, ginkgos here and there, many hawthorns in the parks, and so many Chanticleer pears that we have to hope they are resilient too.
But the mainstay of our parks and squares is the London plane. Since the 18th century it has defined the landscape of the West End, historically and practically. It is strange that a sterile hybrid should become the climax tree of the London forest – and should certainly be worrying us now. We desperately need to find a treatment to keep them going.