While strolling on the Avenue du Maine in Paris recently I noticed
that the street is planted with young, slender plane trees. They reminded
me of the ages of man, elegant in youth, distorted and decrepit in old age.
Are plane trees an anomaly? When aged, they indeed look like an old man, with
distorted limbs, somewhat crooked, with a trunk showing exfoliating bark,
and patterns of self-enforced shedding. That would be the negative side. It
is easily countered, though, with a host of positives. These are tall, strong
trees, reaching 25-35 m, about 100 ft, in height, planted in long
alignments, as can be seen not only in cities, but also along ancient French
roads. Napoleon ordered that they be set thus to provide shade. More so in
collective order than individually, they are like soldiers at parade.They remind me of la
nineteenth-century art, as in paintings by Vincent van Gogh (Â«The Road
Menders,Â» 1889, Cleveland Museum of Art). In Europe, plane trees already
existed in the Cretaceous, but were wiped out in the subsequent ice ages.
They arrived back in Europe from the Orient when, around 1650, John Tradescant,
Chief Gardener to King Charles I, hybridized and reintroduced them in London.
To again mention their lifespan, unless they are attacked and brought down
by pests, it is measured in centuries. at least 500 years, there is even a
specimen in Greece said to be 2,000 years old. Which brings up Greek
antiquity: because of the peculiarity of the bark regenerating itself in
plates, the plane tree was likened to a snake shedding. The plane tree thus
stood as a symbol of regeneration. Indeed, to this day, MDs hold as their
emblem the caduceus, i.e., Hermes’s staff. It consists of a short staff,
from a branch of plane tree entwined by two snakes, sometimes headed with
The large, palmated leaves have their own beauty. These are truly
idiosyncratric trees. They define the beautiful in their own, maybe defiant
way. And their peeling bark? A giraffe-like camouflage meant to mislay
dinosaurs in their time? Or a signal cautioning car drivers to remain alert
enough rather than falling asleep at the wheel and crashing into them? A
relatively unfrequent occurrence that led in France to a newspapers-fed
frenzy of eradication of the tree along country roads, with the obvious
attendant degradation of the landscape.
Did I make it plain that I am fond of plane trees?