London plane trees hang out their own baubles for the festive season. Unlike our Christmas decorations which are on show for just a few weeks, these spiky balls cling on to the tree right through until March or April. The bobbing baubles are packed with next year’s seeds and are a reminder during these dark months that spring is in the pipeline.
Now winter has removed the plane tree’s leaves, birds such as goldfinches, crows and puffed-up wood pigeons can be seen busying around in its boughs. Some trees have twiggy nests carefully lodged in the upper branches which provide a sturdy foothold from which to survey life below (you can see why the look-outs on ships are called crow’s nests). They might look fragile but the threads that keep these balls from falling are as tough as old rope – you can just about tease them off with your hands.
When the seeds ripen in spring they will fly as far away from the parent plant as possible using little parachutes. Each tree has both male and female seeds – females are more reddish in colour, males are green – but they are clustered together on different branches.
The plane is a hybrid cross of the Oriental plane and the American sycamore. London’s first sapling was planted in Berkeley Square in 1789. Tall and glamorous-looking, these trees instantly became a hit in west London before spreading east. Their mottled grey, olive and beige-coloured trunks constantly peel off large scales which meant they could survive the capital’s sooty air during the 19th and 20th century. Now, planes make up more than half of the capital’s trees.
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