They were so common in the British capital that they became known as ‘London Planes’ – and the name stuck.
After being planted greedily by the Victorians, London plane trees flourished and are now the most common tree in the capital.
But while their distinctive flaky bark makes them an instantly recognizable sight, London planes are known to be among the causes of hay fever, which plagues millions of Britons during the summer months.
In addition to the pollen they produce, they shoot hairs, called trichomes, at the same time grass pollen levels are at their highest. The bristles are also known to make people cough and irritate the skin.
While some London plane trees date back to the 18th century, it is those lining the Embankment – planted systematically in 1870 – that have marked the Victorian imagination.
Today they line many of the capital’s streets and can also be seen in many of London’s most popular green spaces, including Hyde Park.
Pollen counts were high across England last weekend, prompting many to document their misery on social media.
They were so common in the British capital that they became known as ‘London Planes’ – and the name stuck. Above: London planes line London Dock in the late 19th century
Today, plane trees line many streets in the capital and can also be seen in many of London’s most popular green spaces, including Hyde Park.
WHAT EXACTLY IS HAY FEVER AND CAN PLANE TREES CAUSE IT?
Hay fever is an allergic reaction to pollen, a fine powder that comes from plants.
There is more pollen in the air in spring and summer when plants are in bloom.
The reaction usually occurs when the pollen comes into contact with someone’s eyes, nose, mouth or throat.
Hay fever symptoms include coughing and sneezing; a runny or stuffy nose; itchy, red or watery eyes; itchy throat, nose, mouth or ears; headaches and fatigue.
According to the King Edward VII Hospital, the London plane is ‘one of the most common culprits’ of pollen causing hay fever during the summer months.
Oaks, birches and ashes are also commonly associated with hay fever symptoms.
In addition to the pollen they produce, the spiky fibers of plane tree seeds form a dust that creates cough symptoms.
People with hay fever can put petroleum jelly around their nose to trap pollen, wear wrap-around sunglasses to keep pollen out of their eyes, wash their clothes regularly, and vacuum and dust indoors.
Avoiding grass, cut flowers, and smoke can help reduce symptoms, as can drying clothes indoors where pollen is less likely to stick to them.
Source: NHS Choices and King Edward VII Hospital
According to a survey last year, almost half of the UK population is struggling with the disease, almost double the number previously thought.
It was previously estimated that hay fever affected up to 13 million people in the UK, or 30% of the population.
The plane tree is easily identifiable thanks to its characteristic bark which flakes off in large flakes. Its leaves resemble those of a sycamore.
As well as London planes, oaks, birches and ashes – all of which are popular in green spaces across Britain – are associated with hay fever symptoms.
Among the oldest planes in the capital are those in Berkeley Square in Mayfair. They date from 1789.
By contrast, the planes that line the south bank of the London Eye at Oxo Tower were planted after the Festival of Britain in 1951, making them relatively young youngsters.
The oldest London planes in England, at Buckden, Cambridgeshire, date from 1660. They are said to have been presented to the then Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Sanderson.
Another London plane dating from the 17th century is in Ely.
London’s oldest and largest plane is in Barn Elms in west London and is believed to date from 1685. It was planted on land owned by the then Archbishop of Canterbury.
The precise origins of the London planes are not known, they did not originate in London or the UK.
Most botanists agree that it is a hybrid between the oriental plane tree and the American sycamore.
Before being systematically planted in the late 19th century, London planes were largely confined to plazas and promenades.
After the development of the Embankment, London planes were planted at a rapid rate in the capital, and then throughout the country and elsewhere.
Writing in a blog for the Southbank Centre, historian Paul Wood said of the London Plane: ‘London’s love affair with the hybrid plane began at the dock.
“It has become an icon of the modern city and has been recorded in countless 19th century photographs and paintings.”
In addition to the pollen they produce, the spiky fibers of plane tree seeds form a dust that causes coughing symptoms.
Among the oldest planes in the capital are those in Berkeley Square in Mayfair. They date from 1789. Above: Plane trees in Berkeley Square
A 1905 Daily Mail report noted how “every street strewn with bricks and planes” was a surprise to people visiting London. He added that “the plane has thrived much better in London than any other forest tree”
Work on the Victoria Embankment began in 1865 and was completed in 1870. It became a model for the countless other tree-lined thoroughfares that now exist in London.
In 2019, Melbourne authorities decided to remove plane trees from the city’s central business district in part due to the impact they were having on the health of some residents.
In Sydney, planting plane trees has faced opposition from locals who say they cause hay fever symptoms. The inhabitants have launched a “more plane trees” action group.
Before being systematically planted in the late 19th century, London planes were largely confined to plazas and promenades. Above: Hyde Park in the early 19th century
Plane trees are seen in Kennington Park, south London. Trees can reach 115 feet and live for several hundred years
After the development of the Embankment, London planes were planted at a rapid pace in the capital, then throughout the country and elsewhere
According to a survey last year, nearly half of the UK population suffers from hay fever, almost double the number previously thought.
Professor Robyn O’Hehir, an allergy specialist at Monash University in Melbourne, has previously said that plane trees can cause throat irritation even in people who are not prone to allergies.
She warned Melbourne residents to “avoid prominent areas of plane trees”.
“People often need water or a bite of bread to clear fine particles from their throats,” she said.
University of Melbourne botanist Ed Newbigin added that plane trees can cause “eye and skin irritation”.
Why do some people suddenly develop hay fever?
For most people with hay fever, symptoms begin in childhood and persist for the rest of their lives.
But some people seem to develop the disease suddenly and for no apparent reason, even well beyond their adult lives.
Nobody knows exactly why hay fever can appear out of the blue, but there are a number of theories.
The first is that they experienced very mild symptoms in childhood that they did not notice.
Another is the “hygiene hypothesis,” that our bodies weaken with age because we are not exposed to as many infections as children.
Research has indicated that young people who grow up on farms with regular contact with animals are less likely to develop allergies later in life.
Another possibility is that sudden hay fever occurs when the body is exposed to a new environment – such as moving from the city to the countryside, where there is usually more pollen.
But the same could also be true for people moving from rural to urban areas, with some evidence that pollution can exacerbate hay fever.
A weakened immune system could also be a trigger.
A bad infection, illness, or traumatic emotional event can leave the body vulnerable to normally harmless allergens.
It is thought that between 15 and 20% of people in the UK are affected, with the number even higher in teenagers and symptoms usually peaking in their twenties.