Monday, December 29, 2014

The plane tree

The story goes that in the beginning of the 2000s, a cargo ship carrying exotic birds was passing through the Istanbul Strait-the Bhosphorus, or it could be a long haul cargo truck crossing the first suspended bridge, when some of the birds got away from their cages. They settled in Arnavutköy, one of the villages along the Bhosphorus. A few other villages have claimed to have the birds also but I personally know that they live in the big plane trees up the hill in Arnavutköy.

                              Without a telephoto lens it was not possible to capture well focused pictures of the birds.

The birds are a type of parakeet that has light green plumage. Based on their coloring they must be members of the parrot genus Psittacula or Afro-Asian Ringnecked parakeets as they are commonly known. Their shrill tropical calls can be heard when we pass under the trees. They fly in groups and we have sighted 12 to 15 of them flying together. The parakeets have made their homes in these trees.

                                              Plane trees in Arnavutköy in the fall

I didn’t live in Istanbul as a child. From time to time we would visit the city and I remember how I used to enjoy riding along the avenue between Ortaköy and Eminönü with plane trees on either side. There are over 600 trees and they have been given identification plaques by the Beşiktaş municipality. They are closely watched for any signs of weakening or disease and in 2012 some of them needed to be brought down due to a fungus. Exhaust fumes and de-icing salts were blamed for the calamity. Their habit of shedding bark allows plane trees to cast off particulate pollutants but most of the diseased trees in Beşiktaş were old. Some of them were over a hundred years old. Younger trees were planted in their place.

Platanus is a genus comprising a small number of tree species native to the northern hemisphere. They are the sole living members of the family Platanaceae. They are commonly called plane trees. The most known plane trees are occidental plane trees of Northern America (Platanus occidentalis), the oriental plane tree (Platanus orientalis) which is native to Southeast Europe from the Balkans to Iran and the hybrid planes called the London plane tree (Platanus × acerifolia) which is a group of hybrids derived from crosses between P. occidentalis and P.orientalis. Planes seen in London belong to this cross the first of which is thought to have been planted in England from about 1680. Plane trees have often been planted in urban environments because they can withstand poor soil conditions and pollution. All members of Platanus are tall, reaching 30 to 50 meters in height. They provide good shade.

Their flowers are reduced and are borne in balls. Male and female flowers are separate, but they are borne on the same plant. The number of heads in one cluster (inflorescence) is indicative of the species. P. occidentalis have 1-2 fruits per stem. Their leaves have 3-5 lobes and the lobe is wider than long. London planes have 2-4 fruit and the leaves have 5 lobes. The lobe is as wide as long.      P. orientalis on the other hand, can have the most fruit, 2-6 on a stem and the leaves have 5-7 lobes. The lobes are always longer than wide.

Plane trees are wind-pollinated. Male flower-heads fall off after shedding their pollen. After being pollinated, the female flowers become achenes-a seed like fruit that contains the seed-that form an aggregate, an assembled ball. The ball is typically 2.5–4 cm in diameter and contains several hundred achenes, each of which has a single seed. There is also a tuft of many thin stiff yellow-green bristle fibers attached to the base of each achene. These bristles help in wind dispersion of the fruits as in the dandelion.

We find London planes and Oriental planes in Istanbul. The ones that interest me most are the Oriental plane trees. The species name derives from its historical distribution eastward from the Balkans and following Greek usage it is called platane or related names in continental Europe. It was equally famous to the Iranian-speaking world and from Turkey to India it is called chinar, chenar or related names derived from the Persian name. The native range is Eurasia from the Balkans to at least as far east as Iran. P. orientalis has been cultivated in India.

                                  Oriental plane tree branches and fruit in the fall of 2013 in Istanbul

Just like the plane trees of Istanbul there is many a storied plane tree in Anatolia. Almighty is the adjective most often used for describing big old chinar trees and sitting under them is akin to worshipping.


  1. Hi Beste - interesting about the birds and the plane trees ... we have 'outbreaks' of non-native birds here .. including a lot of parrots - which are becoming a nuisance in parts of the UK ... mostly the south - as our port of entries are largest down here and the climate is more conducive.

    Plane trees were planted in London to absorb the polluting atmosphere as far back as the 1850s - when it was realised we needed to do something about our air ... and before the realisation about clean air - 1950s, and sewage etc in the mid 1800s ...

    Trees and plants are incredible ... while little escapees can live and make their way in the world wherever they are ... nature adapts ...

    Happy New Year and here's to health and happiness - cheers Hilary

  2. I'm glad they're taking care of the trees. It took me ages to realise that the trees along Lake Geneva were also plane trees. I hadn't realised their bark resembled eucalyptus. And the ones in Geneva have been groomed in rounder shapes.