By Ruth D’Alessandro, The Wildlife Gardener Last weekend, la famille Wildlife Gardener left the windswept trees of Surrey for… the windswept trees of Cambridge. And spectacular trees they were: one in particular, hidden away in the Fellow’s Garden of Emmanuel College ” Xerxes’ plane.
We all know and love London planes, (Platanus x hispanica), those pavement-bound, fume-absorbing uprights lining roads in towns and cities. But there is another species, the oriental plane (Platanus orientalis) that grows well in southern England, and the wonderful plane tree at Emmanuel is one of these. So, what has King Xerxes of Persia to do with a venerable oriental plane in the heart of Cambridge? It’s a great story: according to the Greek historian, Herodotus (c. 484 ” 425 BC), King Xerxes, while marching to invade Greece, sat in the shade beneath a magnificent plane tree at Kallatebos. He so fell in love with the tree that he ordered it to be decorated with gold and to have a guardian forever stationed beneath it. The moment was captured in the libretto of Handel’s only comic opera, Serse:
No shade is more sweet Than the shade Of this dear and lovable Vegetable.
Which just goes to show that you don’t go to the opera for the lyrics. A moment of sentimentality before Xerxes and his Persian army crashed into Greece. They crossed the Hellespont on the second attempt; after the first one failed, Xerxes punished the naughty strait by whipping it with iron fetters 300 times. Although heroically resisted by the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae, the Persians defeated them, then went on to burn Athens, casting Xerxes as the villain of classical Greek studies. Thermopylae would at first glance seem a disaster, but the heroism of the Spartans inspired the Greeks who went on to give the Persians a darn good thrashing the following year. And now back to Cambridge. Astonishingly, the vast and wonderful Xerxes’ plane is not old by any means ” it was not there before 1802, as in that year, a Cambridge academic and explorer called Edward Daniel Clarke brought some seeds back from a research trip to Greece. He collected them on the battlefield of Thermopylae. The Emmanuel plane is treated almost as indulgently as Xerxes’ plane at Kallatebos, with the tantalising thought that the two may be related. It has a big chunk of the Fellow’s Garden to sprawl in, and viewing of it is restricted to certain times throughout the year. It is propped:
And when it chooses to escape over a wall, the damage is smilingly tolerated as if it were done by a misbehaving toddler:
It is a wonderful, beautiful tree, with a beguiling historical connection. Autumn is a great time of year to see it:
As I left, I took with me a leaf, to be dried, pressed and kept between pages 68 and 69 of Thomas Pakenham’s fabulous Meetings With Remarkable Trees. The plan is, before I go to meet the choir invisibule, I visit every tree in Mr Pakenham’s book. 12 down, 56 to go…