Monday, September 13, 2010

London plane trees offer first sign autumn is near

The changing colors of the London plane tree leaves is one of the first signs in Central Florida that autumn is on the way
(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel September 13, 2010)

My interest in London plane trees began during my childhood in Yardley, Pa. Huge London planes encircled a large house on my street, and I enjoyed picking up round seedpods from the ground and breaking them apart with my fingers. The symmetrical shape of those trees appealed to my developing sense of aesthetics, as did the trees' multicolored peeling bark.

I'm still interested in London plane trees, but over the years my reasons have changed. In Florida, this hybrid of the American sycamore and Oriental plane tree is one of the earliest signs of autumn. Of all the trees that grow in the central part of the Sunshine State, London planes are among the first to change color. Although sometimes a bit of yellow appears, most of the large, star-shaped leaves go directly from green to brown. It's not a showy display, but it's an obvious indication that summer is waning.

This year, the first leaves to change color weren't the ones on my own London plane trees but on a row of trees outlining a nearby building. Not far from my home is an industrial complex with several London plane trees. Plane trees are a popular choice in residential and commercial locations because, in addition to being fast-growing, they tolerate an extraordinary amount of abuse.

These 80- to 100-foot-tall behemoths can handle exposure to air pollution, reflected heat, smoke, dust, soot, wind and heavy pruning. They can even tolerate pavement covering their broad, spreading roots. The leaves on the trees in the industrial park turned brown several weeks before my own did. Soil and water conditions trigger leaf change, which means that trees in drier, less fertile soil tend to lose their leaves sooner than those growing in richer, moister conditions.

Despite its many favorable qualities, the London plane tree has negative characteristics as well. Many people consider it a "dirty" tree because so many large, leathery leaves litter the ground in the fall. The seedpods also create what some consider unattractive debris. Its height, while a positive feature in some situations, becomes a problem when it's planted in the wrong place, such as beneath utility wires. The tree's root system presents even more problems. The strong, broad roots can interfere with sewers, damage sidewalks and cause problems with building foundations.

A few years ago, when I was still infatuated with the tree's symmetrical shape, peeling bark and rapid growth, I made the mistake of planting a London plane tree about 15 feet from our house. In less than four years, the seedling, planted in rich, irrigated soil, grew 40 feet tall and almost as broad.

It was around that time my infatuation with London plane trees began to fade.

I grew tired of all the leaves it dropped every year. I didn't like the way the roots — many growing right at the surface — spread in every direction. They limited my use of the ground beneath the tree and grew perilously close to the house's foundation and walkways.

After some coaxing (after all, I had previously persuaded my husband to plant the tree there in the first place), we solved the problem by cutting the tree down. There's another London plane tree in our front yard, but it's farther away from the house and not as much of a bother.

Because I remember London plane trees from my youth, they will always have a place in my heart. But these days, instead of appreciating them as an element of the landscape, I like them for way they indicate seasonal shifts. The weather in Central Florida may still be hovering in the 80s, but by looking at the line of London plane trees growing down the road from my house, I know that autumn is almost here.

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