Right in Our Front Yards: Rye’s Plane Trees – Nothing Plain About Them

Rye’s abundant tree population provides lots of seeds for wildlife. This is particularly true of the City’s two species of plane trees — the London plane trees and their North American cousins, the sycamores.

right in front yard sycamore fruit
Published April 11, 2012 7:35 PM
4 min read

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right in front yard sycamore fruitRye’s abundant tree population provides lots of seeds for wildlife. This is particularly true of the City’s two species of plane trees — the London plane trees and their North American cousins, the sycamores.

By Bill Lawyer


right in front yard sycamore fruitRye’s abundant tree population provides lots of seeds for wildlife. This is particularly true of the City’s two species of plane trees — the London plane trees and their North American cousins, the sycamores.

 

Every spring the planes produce globe-shaped compound male (red) and female (green) flowers. Wind provides pollination, and by the fall the fertilized female globes have produced a multitude of seeds with feathery “tails” for birds to feast upon.  

 

Plant scientists think that the London plane trees are a fertile hybrid of the North American and the Eastern European species. Supposedly the Spanish explorers brought back samples from the Americas. These “imports” were planted in parks adjacent to the European ones, and the rest, as they say, is history.

 

While the Spanish may have “created” the hybrid, it became known as the London plane tree due to that city’s widespread planting of them, starting in the 1680’s. This was no doubt part of the City’s rebuilding after the infamous fire of 1666.

 

By the time large numbers of immigrants were arriving in North America in the 19th century, they found many of the streets and country roads already lined with London plane trees.

 

The name “plane” tree comes from the fact that the trees’ palm-shaped leaves are very wide, and “plasne” is the old French word for wide.

 

In colonial times, Rye and the surrounding communities were being rapidly denuded of trees – although not exactly the way it happens in Dr. Seuss’ “Lorax” children’s book or the recently released movie of the same name. Here the trees were being cut down for lumber, naval stores (pitch, turpentine, etc.) and to make way for farming.

 

But eventually Rye’s forestry and agricultural enterprises lost out to areas further west, and old fields and pasturelands were grown over into climax forests. That’s why when you walk through the woods of preserved parkland, such as the Marshlands Sanctuary, you find old stone walls marking off the boundaries of forgotten

farmland.

 

Starting in the early 20th century, people in suburban areas began to grow trees along their streets. Rye was part of this trend, planting trees along all its major right in front yard cambridge plane treesthoroughfares, including Milton Road, Oakland Beach Avenue, Rye Beach Avenue and Forest Avenue.

 

Plane trees had been used widely throughout Europe to provide beauty and shade – thanks to their wide leaves — for urban avenues, parking lots, outdoor markets and country roads. I have personally encountered them all over southwestern France and the Catalonian region of Spain.

 

Thus they were an obvious choice here in Rye. Walking along Rye Beach Avenue from Milton Road to the beach, one encounters twelve fully mature plane trees along the south side of the street. Eight more are on Overlook between Rye Beach and Ormond.

 

Ten plane trees can be spotted on Playland Parkway from Forest Avenue to the parking circle at Playland. And, a few years ago the City of Rye planted a stand of plane tree saplings by the Milton Road (Nursery) playing field parking lot. Just recently I noticed a long row of planes on Coolidge Ave.

 

Some species of trees are very difficult to identify in the winter when the leaves are off the trees. Plane trees pose no such problem. Their mottled, three-toned, flaky bark stands out unmistakably. Colors range from cream and olive to light brown, and the lower bark can be even darker brown.

 

London plane trees are included in Cornell University’s “Recommended Urban Trees” publication. They are on New York City’s approved list as well. The species has a wide range of moisture and drainage tolerance, and many different cultivars are resistant to the common plant diseases found in the Eastern United States.

 

They can also tolerate – and help to mitigate – the higher levels of air pollution found in urban areas.

 

The authors the of the Cornell publication note that, as with all climax forest tree species, London planes need room for their roots in order to grow tall enough to provide the desired shade. But the trees do tolerate pruning, so that they can be kept from getting too tall.

 

In fact, London plane trees are ideal candidates for the process of “pollarding”, wherein the rows of trees are pruned to a uniform, manageable height. In the long run, this is a lot cheaper than having to deal with cracked sidewalks and threats to nearby houses and power lines.

 

And that’s the plain truth about plane trees, right in our front yards.

 

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