London Plane (Platanus x hispanica) was a tree that very much came into its own in Brown’s day. At the beginning of his century, Thomas Hamilton had to confess that ‘tho they are now comeing in Request here, … as I have no kind of Experience of them, I shall be Silent’.
Repton knew it to be quick growing; it is long-lived and it seems likely now to become the tallest broad-leaf in the English countryside. Indeed the genus was regarded by the Rev William Gilpin no less as producing noble and picturesque trees, for which reason Evelyn recommended it for avenues. However the 18th century English may not generally have been aware of its longevity and eventual height.
Though now a striking street tree, Capability Brown liked to plant it by water – Broadlands, Nuneham, Wimpole and Youngsbury come to mind as the first of a great number of places – and this was recognised by others, by Emes at Penrice for example and by Mr Fellowes of Norfolk, who advised Arthur Young that he found them ‘to thrive amazingly in low moist situations’. One such is the plantation, presumably Brown’s, around Rose Briar Farm at Croome, large enough to have been a nursery, for it was also used as the tall signal tree that breaks up the views from the house to the Malverns. Repton mentioned a similar planting, presumably also Brown’s, in a spread of broad-leaves by the water at Longleat.
18th century planters will also have been struck by its foliage – lighter and brighter in tone than any other broad-leaf available at the time, and in some hybrids very attractive in form, as sharply defined as its parent the Oriental Plane (Platanus orientalis), but less deeply lobed. I wonder if my readers could confirm that they tend to be planted on the house side of the water, which might suggest that Brown was employing aerial perspective to distance his lakes.
It is among planes also, at Wimpole and Broadlands for example, that we may find Brown coming as close as he ever did to planting two trees in a hole. The tradition of bunch planting, as we nowadays call it, is much more associated with the picturesque movement.
Look again before we close at this association with water and we shall see that planes are planted particularly by water-related structures: the head of the culvert at Broadlands, the boat-house at Nuneham, the bridge at Wimpole, the bath-house at Youngsbury, and so I am tempted to conclude that Brown chose planes as a means of picking out these structures, thus the planes stand out from the Alder-fringed lake at Wimpole for example. Then one might move on to its use adjacent to the pleasure grounds and offices of the house – at Berrington, Dinefwr, Fawley Court and Himley for example, and one might conclude that its exotic character recommended it to Brown as a means of signalling and acknowledging the presence of a building in the landscape.