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ON THE PLANE TREES ACROSS EUROPE

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) rose to prominence during the final stages of the French Revolution (1789-1799), a very tumultuous period of social upheaval during which many battles raged. He eventually became France's supreme military commander and political leader. As Napoleon I, he was Emperor of France and almost the rest of Europe from 1804 till his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

He is credited with the policy of aligning roads from the south to the north of Europe with plane trees to enable his troops to march in the shade in the summer and to provide firewood and building materials in the winter. Several shiploads of plane tree seedlings were therefore transported from the eastern regions of North America to various ports in France to meet his demands and distributed across his empire from there.

Plane trees are relatively fast growing and their large leaves and dense foliage provides more shade than many other kinds of trees. This prevailing type is called the Western Plane. Although native to the Northern Hemisphere, they have become naturalized as far south as Latin America and the coastal regions of Australia. Other common types are the Oriental and London Plane.

The Oriental Plane is indigenous to South-East Europe, the Balkans and Asia Minor. One of the most ancient of its kind, near the town of Tnjri in Azerbaijan, stands as tall as an eighteen story building - more than the length of an Olympic sized swimming pool - and is estimated to be at least 2030 years old. Specimens like this one are completely hollow due to the decay of the heartwood. It is so hollow that it has ample space for at least a hundred people to comfortably stand in.

London Planes are a hybrid, a cross between the Western and the Oriental Plane and did not exist prior to the European colonization of the New World in the beginning of the seventeenth century. The one thing North America had in enormous quantities when the first Europeans arrived, were trees and wood. Before that, Western and Oriental Planes had for always been separated by the Atlantic Ocean.

However, ambitious British botanists shipped scores of unheard plants, flowers and tree sprouts back to England for further scrutiny and cultivation, including those of the Western Plane. Because quite a large number of Oriental Planes could be found as far north as England, they were able to cross-pollinate. Plane trees are generally wind pollinated. Only later did they became known as the London Plane.

London Planes were reengineered by specialists in the late 1960s and, after many tests, introduced to the city that gave this tree its name in 1984. They have since almost exclusively been planted in urban areas, parks and along roadsides due to their upgraded tolerance for atmospheric pollution, deseases, winter cold, summer heat and wind resistance.

Apart from being eulogized by novelists such as Honoré de Balzac and Sidonie Colette, plane trees have been a source of inspiration for great painters such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Paul Signac and Alfred Sisley. Albert Camus, recipient of the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature, was tragically killed in 1960 together with his friend and publisher, Michel Gallimard, who slammed the fast sportscar they were travelling in into a plane tree on their way back to Paris from the Provence.

Mature plane trees are extremely massive and the style of their planting produces very impressive effects. They are much loved for their aesthetic value and associated heritage.

Image: the characteristic mottled bark of a plane tree 

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Jon Eiselin.

www.joneiselin.com

 

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