Concert Grove: Elegant for a fundraiser, egalitarian for a humble picnic. Grand enough for inspiration, yet unassuming so as not to steal the thunder from a baby’s first steps. A shared space that gracefully hosts Kung-fu classes, daycares, hours of skateboard mishaps, string quartet rehearsal, psychotic ranting at statues of composers, and quiet meditation. All manner of humanity is drawn there to do their thing. But why? There are many artfully concealed artistic components (as Olmsted would have it), to explain the place’s appeal, but this being a time to focus on species of the month, I will focus on the living medium…
The London Plane Tree, Platanoides x acerifolia, the composer of Concert Grove’s canopy. The choice of a hybrid tree, hailing from the old world, is a departure from the normal Species of the Month theme highlighting native species evolved in our ecosystem. (So sue me!) As much as we all love a good product of evolution that works in natural harmony with its native surroundings, there are some introduced flora that deserve props. By virtue of its grit, grandeur and longevity, the London Plane can be considered an honorary native New Yorker.
Our city’s most common street tree, its mottled grey-green-whitish peeling bark, appearing somewhat tattered at times, can be as familiar and unremarkable as a hot dog cart or fire hydrant to anyone who has lived in NYC for a spell. Unlike the weedy Ailanthus, that hellish “Tree of Heaven”, which grows and falls too often in Brooklyn, an individual London Plane can persist on a block or corner long enough to invoke childhood memories well into old age. Sometimes they are the only familiar texture remaining in a neighborhood transformed over decades. And, like hot dogs and hydrants, this tree is tough, tough, tough: It endures pee, pollution, compaction, drought, flood, charcoal barbecues on its roots, extreme heat and cold. The madness and mishigas some of us have seen at the base of these trees is beyond polite description, yet they endure.
The oldest London Planes around could have cast shadows on our grandparents and may outlive our grandkids. In fact, it is fun to muse that we don’t yet know how long a healthy one might live. An excerpt from “A Short Guide to the London Plane” by Robin Hull, illustrates the mystery of its potential lifespan…
‘I.M.Chengappa sums up our knowledge of the longevity of London planes: “The species was formed by hybridisation in the 17th century, and is therefore only about 350 years old. Thus all London planes are under this age. The oldest known trees show no signs of senescence, and no reliable figure for their old age has been established.’ ”
It’s fair to say we could all be pushing up daisies while these trees are still dropping their leaves. It reminds me of another thing from England that survives improbably through a lifetime of harsh toxicity. Is it a stretch to call this the Keith Richards of trees?
So, how did this creation come to be? The simplified version is that sometime in the mid-1600’s the relatively temperamental American Sycamore Platanus occidentalis was introduced to (or maybe met randomly at a tree bar) Oriental Sycamore Platanus orientalis. The result was a stable hybrid – hence the “x” – with the look and size of the occidentalis (western) and the disease resistance of the more ancient orientalis (eastern). It was found to be suitable for the soot-choked streets of polluted old London, and eventually took off from there as a reliable urban street tree around the world (F.L.O. was an early adopter before it became cool in the USA; it met the requisite “elegance and picturesqueness”).
The specific epitaph, acerifolium, refers to its maple-like leaves. Acer = Maple, folium = leaves. The shape of which is said to have been the model of our very own beloved NYC Parks Department logo… but close scrutiny of the leaf shape, and the research of “Professor Ginko”, dispels that myth. (To me the Park’s leaf looks like an invasive Norway Maple, go figure.)
Back to our park and upcoming festivities! My understanding is that part of [the Prospect Park] Gala will go down under the canopy of lower Concert Grove. If celebrants’ eyes should follow the large trunks up to that canopy, they will behold an untraceable and seemingly infinite network of branches intermingling and disappearing among each other. No one tree crown stands out, but together they all produce an effect of wholeness. Choose to apply a warm and fuzzy analogy, or choose to ignore them altogether, either way these trees will have their effect.
Jesse Brody is the Eco-Zone Gardener, Lakeside, Landscape Management for Prospect Park Alliance. This article originally appeared in a Prospect Park Alliance staff newsletter focused on Species of the Month. It will be the first of ongoing reflections on Prospect Park.