Oakland Cemetery

In between Friends Hospital and Greenwood Cemetery, just a bit off Roosevelt Boulevard in Philadelphia, is Oakland Cemetery.  Friends Hospital, founded in 1813, is the oldest private psychiatric hospital in the US, and it also has a beautiful landscape – with its azaleas along the way down to Tacony Creek behind it, with its enormous American elm tucked away into a corner behind one of its buildings, and with the many other trees and flowers dotting and shading it throughout, it’s a surprising little refuge of calm and color in the city, as traffic along the Boulevard rushes by, just beyond the gates and fence of the hospital’s grounds.  If you go back behind the buildings and down that road that is lined with those azaleas that bloom in the spring, and you take a left turn at Tacony Creek, you’ll eventually get to Fishers Lane.  And if you then take a left there, you’ll get to Ramona Ave, and then, a bit more along, as you walk along Ramona, you’ll see Greenwood Cemetery on your right.

Greenwood Cemetery was, in centuries ago, the property of Benjamin Rush, physician, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and advocate of sugar maples and the maple syrup that can be derived therefrom.  Why was Dr. Rush an advocate of maple syrup?  This was in large part because he was an ardent abolitionist, and didn’t want Americans to be reliant upon sugar from West Indies’ sugar cane, which was reliant, in turn, on slave labor for its production.  There are, currently, some extraordinarily large sugar maples there, at Greenwood Cemetery, that stand as markers to Rush’s advocacy for their products, and for his advocacy for that most basic of human rights, the right to live freely.

In the post-Rush era, this site became a cemetery, Greenwood Cemetery, chartered in 1869, and as the years wore on, maintenance became difficult to keep up, and this place became quite overgrown, and up until recently was somewhat forested, but it has recently been restored and renovated, and is an idyllic spot to walk now.  And in addition to the sugar maples that I just mentioned, there is also an enormous American sycamore there, that based on its size looks to have been planted in the mid-19th century.  American sycamores don’t do very well in sooty air of cities, and so this tree suggests, to me at least, a 19th century habitat that was open and well stocked with clear air.

And in between these two landmarks, in between Friends Hospital and Greenwood Cemetery, is another open area – open amid the swaths of buildings and roads that pack in, through, and around Philadelphia, it is open and green with trees and shrubs and grass, an open space in the city – Oakland Cemetery.

According to the book Philadelphia: A Guide to the Nation’s Birthplace (by the Federal Writers’ Project, in 1937) Oakland Cemetery opened in 1881 (they also mention that it’s 43 acres), however, as I’ve been told by Jackie Childs, the official start date for the cemetery is 1891.   And Jackie is one to know such things – she is the fourth generation in her family to take care of Oakland Cemetery, and is wonderfully knowledgeable as to what is there, and also as to what was there before.

The cemetery was briefly known as Mt. Auburn (as is indicated on the 1895 map here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/), but shortly thereafter came to its current name of Oakland (as is indicated on the 1910 map here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/), and that is what we know it as now.

In 1895, electric lights were put in, as was recorded in the Journal of the Select Council of the City of Philadelphia, vol. 2 (from October 4, 1894 to March 28, 1895)


Locating electric lights for the year 1895.

Section 1. The Select and Common Councils of the City of Philadelphia do ordain, That the Director of the Department of Public Safety be, and is hereby, authorized and directed to erect electric lights on the following streets and avenues, viz. …”

Following that ellipsis, among the hundreds upon hundreds of streets noted as soon to be having electric lights, we find “south side Asylum pike opposite Oakland Cemetery” listed among them.

If you go there now, you won’t see those lights, but you will see trees that were in the cemetery at that time – at the entrance to Oakland at Adams and Ramona, for example, there is an enormous black oak (Quercus velutina) that, based on its size, I estimate to predate the cemetery.  Also, it has wide and broad spreading lower limbs – this indicates that it has been open grown since its youth, thereby providing evidence that this property was not forested, even prior to its conversion to a cemetery (it would have been a farm – and so we can put together a little story that this now majestic black oak would have, in the mid-19th century, been a scrawny little sapling that was kept alive with, quite likely, the intention of shading cows in a pasture, or farmers on break from working the fields, or the owners as they watched the workers working, perhaps).

Why do those wide and spreading limbs of the black oak indicate this history?  Well, when trees grow in the forest, with other trees nearby, those other trees shade out the lower limbs – and then those lower limbs become weak, and then they fall off, and so we get trees in the forest that are generally tall and straight, growing upwards, with relatively few lower limbs spreading out horizontally (and perhaps with a bit of the oblique).  However, absent those neighboring trees, being “open grown” that is, and absent someone coming along and cutting off a tree’s lower limbs, a tree will branch out broadly, low and spreading, and as the years go by those lower branches will get thicker and larger, expanding in girth as they expand in length, presenting an architecture that looks like it was made to be climbed on or climbed up.  The black oak at the entrance to Oakland Cemetery has just that aspect, and so we can say quite confidently that it didn’t grow up in the forest, but in a field.

If you go a bit farther in to the cemetery, up to the main house there, on your left is an old umbrella magnolia (Magnolia tripetala) – its main trunk has died back, but the suckers that have come up off the roots flower quite well, as the fruits that were there in September 2012 attest.  The umbrella magnolia isn’t native to southeastern Pennsylvania, though it is native to west of here, as Ann Rhoads very persuasively argued in Bartonia, the Journal of the Philadelphia Botanical Club, however it has grown here for quite some time and been naturalized for about a hundred years or so, and it is a reasonably common tree to see planted, or coming up in the woods (I see it pretty often up in the Wissahickon).  This one at Oakland, looking at the base that has died back and from which these suckers has arisen, is one of the largest that I’m aware of around here, and I wonder if it represents one of the earlier plantings of this tree around here.  I should say also that this tree has been growing in Philadelphia for over two hundred years – Magnolia tripetala is listed in the Landreth’s nursery catalog of 1811 [which can be found in the McLean Library of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society], with a common name of “umbrella tree”, and it’s listed in John Bartram’s “Catalogue of American Trees, Shrubs and Herbacious Plants, most of which are now growing, and produce ripe Seed in John Bartram’s Garden, near Philadelphia. The Seed and Growing Plants of Which are disposed of on the most reasonable Terms.” ([Phila.]: [1783]), as is noted in Joel Fry’s article “An international catalogue of North American trees and shrubs; the Bartram broadside, 1783”, in the Journal of Garden History (vol. 16, no. 1, 1996).

A bit farther down and along, just past the house, you start to see large white ash (Fraxinus americana) trees, growing wide and spreading.  These trees, based on their size, I would estimate to have been planted around the time of the opening of the cemetery in the late 19th century – their placement along its paths also attests to their planting having postdated its establishment.  They also look to have been pollarded.  Pollarding is a process whereby the top of a tree is cut off, thereby allowing side shoots to grow up and out from where that top had been removed – this establishes a broadly arching habit, much like what one might see in an American elm, with branches stretching up and over, and if pollarded trees have been planted along side either side of a road or path, those upward sweeping limbs can meet in the middle, forming a vaulting architecture under which we may walk and cars may drive.  Of course, trees can also lose their tops without the intentional intervention of people, without pollarding that is, and so you have to check that this is part of the landscaping intentions, and isn’t due to wind, or someone accidentally swiping a top or two of a tree as they pass by with a truck or something.  These ash trees at Oakland are pretty much all spraying upwards from points at roughly the same height – this suggests to me that they were managed to look like this (if the breaks were accidental or due to nonhuman interventions, then I’d expect them to be expanding outwards from different heights), suggesting that they were clipped so that they could go on to form graceful ceilings under which mourners could make their ways to gravesites, and also so that Sunday visitors who simply wanted to visit a beautiful park could stroll underneath a sky of green.

Onwards and somewhat southwards, as you go along the path that goes towards Ramona Ave and Fisher Lane, and as you get nearly towards the split point of Ramona and Fisher, you’ll look down on your left and you’ll see a sewer.  I was pretty excited when I saw that for the first time – why was that?  Why was I excited to see this hole in the ground, a hole that pretty much just leads to other holes?  Why on earth (or in earth) would I get excited to see a sewer?

Well, if you look at old maps of this site you’ll find that there were streams that used to run through it – in the 1862 map here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/, you’ll see a couple of streams running out of the back of what is now Oakland Cemetery, and one of them, the one to the south, was roughly where Fisher’s Lane splits off from Ramona Ave (and also running along Ramona a bit prior to Ramona’s split with Fisher); the other was up towards the Friends Asylum. The former stream (the one running near what is now Ramona and Fisher) is not on the 1855 map (here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/); the latter is.  If we look on the 1843 map here: http://www.philageohistory.org/tiles/viewer/), both streams are on map, and on the 1808 Hills map (same place as the others), the southern (the one near Ramona and Fisher) stream is there.

There is, I should say, another sewer uphill from that old one – it is newer, and while it does, I’m quite confident, pour its water and other effluvia ultimately into that old streambed marked in those old maps, because it is newer it is not as likely to mark quite as exactly where the stream ran, like that old one does, but was more likely constructed as simple drainage for the road that it accompanies.

And so, that old sewer, and a pretty humble one at that, unlabelled and unadorned, marks the site of a stream that is no longer there – it gives us a physical landmark with which we can pinpoint where that historic stream was, a stream that was limned on old maps and has since been covered up but still carries water, though now underground.  A stream that ran when Benjamin Rush lived here, advocating for abolition, a stream that ran when Friends Hospital opened, a hospital devoted to humane treatment of those who had been treated quite differently prior to that, a stream that ran when this site, Oakland Cemetery, was farmland, with a little black oak seedling far a ways up the hill, now shading the entrance to this city of the dead, but then kept alive most likely with the intention of shading pasture for farm animals, or farm workers, or farm owners – this stream still runs, but the only evidence we see that remains is that humble opening, telling us, quietly, subtly, discreetly, where the history lies beneath.

To read about the importance of cemeteries to urban planning, see here:


To read about some more natural history and open areas, including cemeteries, nearby – see here:


Cedar Grove

Hunting Park

Monument Cemetery

Some Plants and Insects of the Woodlands

A different zelkova (Woodlands Cemetery)

Feral landscaping (Woodlands and Mt. Moriah cemeteries)

The trees of Monument Cemetery

There used to be an enormous cemetery right in the middle of what is now Temple University’s main campus in North Philadelphia.  Filled with bodies and lined with trees, it stretched from its entrance at Broad and Berks all the way over to just about 17th Street – its northern boundary was Norris Street, it dipped south nearly to Montgomery Avenue, and it is nearly all gone today, covered over by pavement and playing fields, with some buildings that have been built there, too, and also evidence, that very few notice, of what was there before.

Those remains, all that remains there now, so far as we are aware, of that cemetery are two trees and a wall that hundreds if not thousands of people walk by everyday, not knowing what they are.

Monument Cemetery was founded in the late 1830s, before the extension north of the lines of Philadelphia’s central grid.  Those grid lines, from Front Street westward – Second, Third, on up, were laid out by Thomas Holme, William Penn’s surveyor, in the 1680s and imposed a European sense of order on the wilds of the new world.  Initially constrained by the limits of South Street to the south and Vine Street to the north, those lines later extended outwards, and now dominate North Philadelphia (and South Philadelphia, too).

But Monument Cemetery was built to a different set of angles – right ones coming off of Ridge Avenue, which lies to the south and to the west.  And its angles never quite fit with those that came along later, it always maintained its old fashioned skew, its borders were at a different angle from its beginning until its end.  Though it did get clipped by Holmes’ lines, it held on to its diagonality, with borders running Baroquely along their ways.  One border ran at roughly a 45 degree angle connecting Broad Street and Norris Street and another went along a similar angle from just east of 17th Street up to Norris – those borders, these two, are still there as property lines that you can see just southeast of George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science, and that you can walk along just southwest of the houses at, on and near the corner of Broad and Norris.

This was a very different place when the cemetery was established.  In 1839 as Daniel Bowen wrote in his History of Philadelphia, Monument Cemetery was “sufficiently remote to prevent the apprehension that it may ever be encroached upon by our growing population”.  This part of the county was rural, but not too distant.  It was far enough away from the city to provide a country tone to the cemetery, however, it was still close enough to the city to allow people to walk there “without experiencing a sense of fatigue”, as Bowen put it.

And people would walk there – not only to visit passed relatives and other loved ones, but also to admire the landscape.  Hundreds of trees were planted there, and a variety of shrubs and other lower growing plants were there – flowers, evergreens, it would have been verdant even in winter.  The broad undulating landscape stretching out, carpeted with grass and green, spiked with trees and shrubs – it would have been a beautiful pastoral.

By the 1840s, it was already being drastically altered – as Wellington Williams notes in his 1849 Hand-Book for the Stranger in Philadelphia, Broad Street had been lowered by 8 to 10 feet, thereby effectively raising Monument Cemetery to well above the heads of any passersby.

And in the 1870s, streets were cut right through the cemetery – 15th Street, and 16th Street, and Norris Street were opened up “for the improvement of the neighborhood and the convenience of the public” (as per the Philadelphia Reports, 1879).  The managers of the cemetery had not buried bodies where the streets were to be, and so graves wouldn’t have had to have been moved, but the lines cut through would have irrevocably changed the uninterruptedly open character of the site.  North Philadelphia was no longer rural – the city had arrived.

At about this time, McKenzie’s nursery, which had been on the corner of Broad and Columbia (now Cecil B. Moore), was torn down.  This nursery had most likely supplied much of the greenery that made Monument Cemetery the beautiful landscape that it was, but the land values would have gotten too high to continue economically justifying an agricultural use for land in this urbanizing district.  And so it passed.

But Monument Cemetery was still there, its massive gate towering above Broad and Berks, its tree lined central avenue leading west from there.

And near the turn of the last century, in 1903, there were rows of what look to be American sycamores along that avenue –

Berks Street through Monument Cemetery, looking west, March 1903 – image from PhillyHistory.org

These large trees look quite a bit like American sycamores, though it is very difficulty to tell without seeing the leaves and fruits – however, the rough bark going high up the trunk and the whitish underbark suggests that those trees are American sycamores.

There are also, one may notice, smaller trees interspersed among those larger trees. From the photograph, it is impossible to tell what they are.  However, if you go there now, to just east of 16th Street, where Berks would once have passed through, you’ll see two tall and thick London planes, about 15 or so feet from each other, oriented east-west, and right next to where the road through Monument Cemetery once was.  They are roughly the same size as trees we cored in the yard of the Wagner Free Institute, right around the corner from here, and so are probably about the same age – those ones at the Wagner were over 110 years old, and so those London planes at 16th and Berks probably are, too, and so would have been planted roughly around 1903, and at roughly the same spacing as the saplings in the picture above.

It is difficult to differentiate London planes from American sycamores, especially when they’re young, and so it may well have been that the landscape was intended to continue having American sycamores, but London planes were planted instead.  But for whatever reason, they are what is there now, these London planes – the only trees that remain from the time of the cemetery.

But they aren’t all that remain from the cemetery’s days – the tall wall along Broad Street, going north from Berks, and also south from Berks, is part of the old cemetery walls.  If you walk west from that now, the road will slope gently up – the same slope that led gently up as hearses brought the dead and carriages brought mourners here so very long ago.  How do we know it’s the same slope as then?  Well, trees don’t move much, and so from those London planes that are there now and were here when the cemetery was, they tell us the original grade of the cemetery – and it is about equal with the top of the slope of that streetway currently stretching west from Broad and Berks.

There are also walls on either side of that road, but they weren’t there in 1903.

Monument Cemetery gate, from the inside, looking east – March 1903. Image courtesy PhillyHistory.org

Just inside the cemetery gates, where that central avenue sloped down to the Broad Street that had been lowered some 60 years earlier, gentle banks led upwards to the cemetery’s ground level.  The walls that are there now, were not there then.

The cemetery continued into the 20th century.  Into the 1930s, there was still a treelined avenue passing through Monument Cemetery, with scattered trees to either side.  And the cemetery walls were still there, as was the cemetery itself.

Then, in the 1950s, Temple University was expanding and wanted to expand onto this site.  And they did.  Bodies were removed, tombstones were, too (to here, for example: http://www.lordwhimsy.com/philadelphia%E2%80%99s-lost-victorian-cemetery ), and yet again the landscape changed entirely, well, nearly entirely.  A couple of trees remain, as did the walls that once extended north and south from the cemetery’s main gates at Broad and Berks.  But the site is otherwise unrecognizable as the graveyard it once was.

Things change, as they always have.  Monument Cemetery was established in the 1830s on land that had not been a graveyard before, and through the 19th century, roads were cut, nurseries moved, bodies were buried –  and as the 20th century rolled forward, walls were built and the entire, nearly the entire, cemetery was removed.  But even through massive change, evidence of the past persists.  The trees and wall are still there, borders are still there as extant property lines.  Even though you wouldn’t notice it just from looking, the evidence is there, that a cemetery was here.  The evidence persists.

To read about the importance of cemeteries to urban planning, see here:


To read about some more natural history and open areas, including cemeteries, nearby – see here:

Oakland Cemetery

Wissinoming, including Mt. Carmel cemetery

Cedar Grove

Hunting Park

Some Plants and Insects of the Woodlands

A different zelkova (Woodlands Cemetery)

Feral landscaping (Woodlands and Mt. Moriah cemeteries)

The yard of the Wagner Free Institute

For more about Monument Cemetery:


London Planes and American Sycamores

All around Philadelphia, and in many other cities as well, the streets are lined with London Plane trees.  These trees, with their trunks of exfoliating bark making them look to be covered in military camouflage, are recognizable from a hundred yards away.  Or so I used to think, until I looked closely at the confusion and complexity that surrounds this seemingly simple and so common tree.

The London Plane is of hybrid origin – it is the offspring of two different species, the American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and the Oriental plane (Platanus orientalis), and it is a tree that did not exist prior to European colonization of the new world.  Before then, American sycamores and Oriental planes were kept separate by an ocean (the Atlantic if you’re going east from the US, or the Pacific if you want to go all the way around the other way), and they didn’t come together until the 17th century, when John Tradescant the Younger, a botanist and gardener (as was his father – John Tradescant the Elder, that is), came to the colonies in the early part of that century and in 1636 took the American sycamore to England.  There were also Oriental planes in England at that time (they’re originally from the more eastern parts of Europe), however though the geographic distances that had previously kept the orientalis and occidentalis separate were gone, still for some time after 1636 age differences would have maintained that separation, as it takes time for trees to grow, and to make flowers, and to shed pollen, and to make new seeds for new plants.  And so for some time these different plants, though now together after having been so long separated, would still have remained distinct from one another.

By 1700, though, east had met west.  We know this because in that year Leonard Plukenet, yet another English botanist, described an intermediate between the Platanus species that were already known (i.e., orientalis and occidentalis), and so from this we can infer that the London plane had arisen by then, an intermediate that looked like what it was, a hybrid cross of two morphologically distinct species.  How, when, where and why this happened, we do not know exactly, except that it was in England in the latter part of the 17th century (the latter part because it would have had to have been long enough after 1636 to have allowed for the seeds Tradescant brought back to have grown into seed bearing trees themselves).  Other than that, we can’t say with more detail, with any confidence at least, when this hybridization event occurred.

It also isn’t clear when this hybrid, the London plane, came to the US (or one could say semi came back to the US, since half its genetics is from the new world) and to understand why, you have to understand the plants.

London planes look quite a bit like their parent species, as you might expect, since that’s how genetics works (like begets like), and so it can be difficult to differentiate them.  This is something I learned recently – I had thought for years it was easy to tell them apart, to differentiate the London plane from the American sycamore.  But, as with so many things, I realized that the closer I looked, the more complicated it became.

There are, broadly speaking, four main characters that are useful for telling these trees apart, the London plane and the American sycamore.  Two of those characters involve the bark.  On London planes, the military camouflage appearance mentioned above, in the first paragraph, is found up and down the trunk of the tree – on American sycamores, the bark is thick and rough up most of the main trunk of the tree, only exfoliating (peeling away) further up.  And American sycamores generally have a white, and commonly bone-white, tone to the underbark that is exposed from the peeling away of the outer bark layers, while the London plane’s underbark will have a yellow or green tinge (or sometimes even a salmon orange color, as is found on a tree in Pastorius Park in Germantown, here in Philadelphia).

The leaves also differ – the leaves of both trees are lobed, and in the London plane, the center lobe is longer that it is wide, whereas the sycamore’s is generally wider than it is long.  A final character separates the two – the flowers (and then later, of course, the fruits) are borne on dangling peduncles (what we might call “stems” in normal English), and in American sycamores these are borne singly, while on the London plane they hang in twos and threes.

Something else also differentiates these trees – their habitats.  If you’re in the floodplain of a river or creek and you see a tree that looks like an American sycamore, it probably is.  If you’re on a city street, and you see a tree that looks like a London plane, it most likely is.  London planes are phenomenally sturdy street trees – they’re called “London planes” because they are and were so common throughout London, and while yes this is due to their attractiveness, it’s also because they were able to grow in the soot filled air of 19th century cities, and so became exceedingly popular, especially in London with its thick industrial era atmosphere.  Since its introduction to urban life, this tree has had times of peak interest, and times of reduced interest, as is noted in William Flemer III’s article “Island and Median-Strip Planting”, in Arnoldia [vol. 44(4), pp, 14-28 (Fall 1984)]: “The London plane tree has gone through several cycles of popularity and disapproval.  Many years ago a few nurserymen grew the trees from seed that produced great variation in habit of growth and disease resistance and this may be one cause for the disapproval.  Another may be the plane tree’s vulnerability to canker stain disease, a serious condition spread by pruning tools or other mechanical means.  The severity of the disease once led the city of Philadelphia to enact ordinances that prohibited planting the tree.”  But, I should add, even though the London plane has had its ups and downs in popularity, it still, generally, will do better in an urban environment than the American sycamore will.  This habitat differentiation is noticeable if you go to the Powell house on 5th Street in downtown Philadelphia – there is a London plane planted right next to an American sycamore.  The London plane is doing quite well, happy as can be – the sycamore, much less so.

Another habitat in which one seems to often encounter American sycamores is graveyards.  There’s an enormous sycamore in Greenwood Cemetery, in Frankford, and another one in the churchyard/graveyard of St. James the Lesser, which is up near Laurel Hill Cemetery – there’s also some planted in the Palmer Burial Ground in Fishtown, and quite a few planted in West Laurel Hill, just over the city’s border, in Bala Cynwyd; there’s also an enormous one in the Germantown Friends burial ground that you can see easily and clearly from Germantown Ave, if you’re standing just a bit west of Coulter St.; there’s also one in the Friends Meeting House yard at 4th and Arch – there used to be a cemetery there, too.  [there’s also a very large American sycamore at the Germantown Cricket Club, next to the parking lot]  The symbolism of this makes sense, planting sycamores in Christian cemeteries.  In the gospels, e.g., in Luke 19, when Jesus is going through Jericho, Zacheus, the chief tax collector in town, climbs what is called a sycamore to see Jesus as he is walking by – Jesus sees Zacheus up in the tree and calls to him, and Zacheus then “received him joyously”, as it says in the King James Version.  Now, this tree from the bible is said to have most likely been a sycamore fig, and certainly was not the sycamore that we have in the US, but the symbolism, one might imagine, would still work and would be effective, because in a graveyard in which the dead await the return of the messiah, one would want a tree for them to climb up on Jesus’s return, so they can see him, and perhaps more importantly, be seen by him.

American sycamores can also grow to enormous size – in the early part of the 20th century, the American Genetic Association put out a call for photos of and associated data for the largest trees in America.  They published results of this in 1919, in the Journal of Heredity, and the largest tree by far was an American sycamore in Worthington, Indiana – it was 42 1/4 feet in circumference.  London planes can grow quite large, but I’m not aware of any that come close to that kind of size.

However, even though there are a number of differences between these plants, it can still be difficult to tell them apart.  Why?  Because even though the London plane is of hybrid origin, it still makes viable seeds, and those seeds are enormously variable, because they contain the genetics of both the parent species, in every combination available.  Also, the London plane can back cross with its parent species, thereby further mixing up the characters.  And so, many of the trees I see in Philadelphia that I once would have easily called “London plane”, I’ve come to notice often have a mix of the characters with those of American sycamore – and so separating them isn’t so easy.

This all helps to make it difficult to figure out when the London plane came to the US – if we find it difficult now to separate them, it’s not like it was any easier in previous decades or centuries, and trees identified as Oriental planes and American sycamores in old documents quite easily could have been misidentified London planes.  William Hamilton, owner of the Woodlands and an avid plant collector who sent numerous plants over from England in the 1780s, when he wrote to his gardener in 1785, he mentioned he had sent over 12 plants of “platanus orientalis”.  This may well have been London plane trees.  Or it might not have been.  We will most likely never know, because absent the plant itself, the name alone just doesn’t tell us for sure what it is.  This is the case for listings in numerous nursery catalogs (including Meehan’s) – Platanus orientalis, for example, may be listed for sale, but we just can’t be sure if that was what they were selling, and so tracking the movement of the London plane is difficult, if not impossible, to do.  An example of this confusion can be found in an article in the magazine “Park and Cemetery Landscape Gardening” from 1916, where, in an article enumerating “Trees for Adverse City Conditions” includes “Platanus orientalis (The Oriental or London Plane)”

And even the plant’s name is confused and confusing.  The latin name most commonly used for the London plane is Platanus x acerifolia (the “x” indicates its hybrid status), however, another valid name is Platanus x hybrida – this confusion arises because we don’t know which name, hybrida or acerifolia, came first, we don’t know which was assigned before the other.  This is important to botanical taxonomists (i.e., people who name plants) because sometimes a plant is named more than once; for example if someone thinks they’ve discovered a new species, and they describe it and name it, but it turns out that they just didn’t know that someone else had named it before, well that first name that was applied previously is the one that is supposed to be used, and not the later one. This often simplifies things because the choice is based simply and solely on date of publication of the name of the species.  However, it’s not always easy to figure that out, and this is one of those cases – while we know that both of these names for the London plane were assigned in 1805 (hybrida by Félix Brotero, a Portuguese botanist, and acerifolia by Carl Willdenow, a botanist in Berin), we don’t know exactly when within that year these names were used, and so priority is confused, and so are we.

And there are further questions of nomenclature here – due to the backcrossing with the parent species, and because plants grown from seeds that are progeny of a hybrid are not, strictly speaking, hybrids themselves, it furthermore becomes complicated as to whether or not many of the London planes we see should truly be called hybrids, and therefore include that little “x” in there.

The confusion doesn’t end there.  Due to that Brotero name, “hybrida“, one might think that the hybrid origin of the London plane was clear and understood early on, or at least by the earliest part of the 19th century.  But even this wasn’t clarified until much later, in 1919, when Augustine Henry and Margaret Flood thoughtfully marshaled the evidence – intermediate morphology that is between the two parent species, highly variable seeds that show traits of both parent species in various combinations – in a paper in the Proceedings of the Irish Royal Academy that clearly indicate that yes, the London plane is a hybrid of the trees from two continents.  So perhaps the confusion does end there, at least for that one question, and at least for now.

To read about the importance of cemeteries to urban planning, see here:


To read about some other local Platanus, see here:



To read about some other trees, see here:

The saucer magnolia

American Chestnut

American elms

“Penn treaty” elms

The Callery pear

The Caucasian zelkova

Paulownia tomentosa, the empress tree

The sophora

Fringe tree

A painting of planes by Van gogh

A painting of planes by Van Gogh