culture myth

Platanus orientalis

Platanus orientalis, also known commonly as the Oriental plane, is a very large, widespreading, and long-lived deciduous tree in the Platanaceae family.


The native range of the Oriental plane includes at least Eurasia from the Balkans to Iran. Some accounts extend its native range to Iberia in the west, and to the Himalaya in the east. As it has been known in cultivation from early times in much of this region, it can be difficult to determine if it is truly indigenous. It is often called Platane or related names in Europe, and Chenar or related names from Turkey to India.

It is often found naturally in riverine settings, together with such trees as alder, willow and poplar. However, it is quite capable of survival and success in dry soils once it is established.

Like other Plane trees, its leaves are borne alternately on the stem, deeply lobed, and palmate or maple-like. It usually has flaking bark, occasionally not flaking and becoming thick and rugged. Flowers and fruit are round and burr like, borne in clusters of between 2 and 6 on a stem. Considerable variation exists among trees in the wild, and this may be complicated by crossbreeding with planted London planes (Platanus x hispanica), the hybrid of P. orientalis with American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis).

It is capable of being grown in most temperate latitudes, though it benefits greatly from warm summers.

The leaves and bark have been used medicinally. A fabric dye has been made from the twigs and roots. The timber, often called lacewood, is figured and valuable for indoor furniture.

Culture, myth and lore

From earliest days, the Oriental plane (P. orientalis) has been an important tree in Persian gardens, which are built around water and shade. There it is known as the chanar (Persian), the plane tree to which Xerxes is said to have written an ode, to the astonishment of the Greeks. The moment is recorded in Handel's opera Xerxes in the famous Largo.

It is reputed to be the Tree of Hippocrates, under which Hippocrates taught medicine at Kos. Pliny's Natural History records the westward progress of the plane "introduced among us from a foreign clime for nothing but its shade", planted first at the tomb of Diomedes on the island of Tremiti, then imported to Greek Sicily by Dionysius the Elder(c. 432-367 BC), tyrant of Syracuse, who had plane-trees conveyed to the city of Rhegium (Reggio di Calabria), where they were looked upon as the great marvel of his palace, according to Pliny's sources, and from there spread by the first century CE as far as the lands of the Morini in Belgic Gaul.

Pliny goes on to describe some legendary plane-trees. There was one on the grounds of the Athenian Academy, he says, that had roots long. Licinius Mucianus, legate of Lycia, held a banquet for 19 in a hollow plane-tree of Lycia, and the emperor Caligula another for 15 plus servants in a tree house (nest) built in the branches of a plane-tree at Velletri.

The sacred grove of planes in the Academia, outside Athens, are where the Peripatetics practiced philosophy.

Most small villages in Greece have one or more very old planes in their central square, where the village's water spring used to be (water springs are nowadays replaced by water taps and still in use). Many of them feature a large cavity which is often a playing and meeting point for children and teenagers, or is tended after, sometimes even illuminated, and featured as a minor tourist attraction.



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