Hiding in Plane Sight

Plane Tree, Sydney, NS

Plane Tree, Sydney, NS. (Photo by Paul MacDougall)

A few days after James is released from hospital following a terrible motor vehicle accident in JG Ballard’s novel Crash, he ventures out of his apartment for the first time. Beyond the forecourt of his building he reflects that, “the tree-lined avenue which led to the neighborhood shopping center was deserted, cars parked nose to tail under the plane trees.”

This reference from Crash was probably the second or third time I’d come across plane trees in a Ballard book. Over the next few years, I motored through most of his novels and stories — he is a superb and prescient writer of the highest rank — and plane trees are mentioned throughout them. Once noted, they can’t be missed.

Ironically, I never bothered to find out what a plane tree was, even though I was forever noticing them in his books, most of which are set in and around London, England.

Twenty years ago (by which point, I’d read many Ballard books) we bought a house in Sydney.

The first summer there, I noticed a neighborhood tree that took forever to leaf out, although it did, eventually, and by fall, large, ball-shaped fruit began to appear on it. At first, I thought it was some type of horse chestnut, as the spiny capsules looked similar. But the leaf did not have the compound horse footprint leaf of the chestnut — it looked more like a maple. And then there was the bark.

Brownish-grey, it was constantly scaling off in platey patches, revealing a greenish tint below. The trunk of the tree looked like camouflage, not smooth or striped or furrowed or ridged, but something very different.

The leaves hung on till late fall and the roundish fruit were still there the following spring. They dropped only when the new year’s leaves started to come out.

Cape Breton University biologist and naturalist, Dave McCorquodale told me, much to my surprise, that it sounded just like a London plane tree. Ballard’s oft-mentioned tree was growing on my street. But why?


I’ve since learned that the London plane tree is actually a cross between the Oriental plane tree and the American sycamore. Both trees were introduced to Europe and by chance one of each species was planted in the London nursery garden of John Tradescant, a famous botanist of the mid-seventeenth century.

One tree cross pollinated with the other and a new hybrid tree (Platanus x hispanica) was formed and named by Tradescant after the city where it originated.

Planting of the new hybrid across London started in the late 18th century, along streets and in city parks. Locals most often called them plane trees, and they soon numbered among the most prevalent tree species in inner London.


Over the years, the London plane, recognized for its ability to adapt to urban conditions and resistance to pollution, has been planted as a street tree in large cities worldwide. Known to reach heights of 35 meters, it can live for hundreds of years — longer than many other shade trees planted in urban centers.

The scaling away of outer bark is an advantageous characteristic of the plane tree in that grime, soot and other associated air pollutants do not linger on the tree where they can potentially cause harm or aid disease-causing microorganisms. This was ideal for the air pollution issues that beset London during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of industrialization.

I have located two other plane trees in the Southend on my almost daily pandemic sojourns around Sydney. Judging by their height and circumference, all three seem to be of an age. I surmise they were planted by the City over 60 years ago, when the steel plant was in full swing. Perhaps they were supplied by a local greenhouse that felt they would do well in the Sydney air of the time.

But if so, one would think many more would be found around town, mixed in among the maples, horse chestnuts, elms and other broadleaf trees, often planted for their shade and cooling effects. But if they’re out there, I haven’t found them yet. So perhaps residents obtained and planted them in front of their houses as a novelty — for something different.

Were I as imaginative as JG Ballard, I would dream up an origin story for these plane trees, explaining where they were from and how they came to Sydney. Or perhaps create a shady character obsessed with them. For now, though, the pursuit of the plane tree is enough. So keep a lookout and reach out to me if you see one.

Paul MacDougall


Paul MacDougall is a Senior Instructor in Health Sciences at CBU, a writer, playwright and radio interviewer for The Coast 89.7 FM. He is interested in green infrastructure, ecological design and urban forests, and enjoys the outdoors, all seasons round. He can be found @franeymountain, literally and virtually.




Back in November 2020, Paul MacDougall wrote a great piece on embracing winter in which he advised people to form a “Cold Club”:

My friend Bill Bailey and I did this a number of years ago to extoll the virtues of winter. When the temperature would drop to -10C or lower, we would meet up and go for a walk around the neighborhood, or pick a destination and walk to it for a coffee, etc. What was cool about this (pardon the pun) was the weather dictated when we could have a Cold Club meeting (read: walk).

On February 28, according to Environment Canada, the temperature in Sydney hit -10.3 °C at 3:00 PM and, right on schedule, Bailey took to walking, texting MacDougall the following message and photo:

Cold club dress today. Goggles and a baklava to keep the -21 wind burn down.

Bill Bailey