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Notes from a Wildlife Garden

Plane amazing

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.

Emmanuel plane tree

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:

Props on Xerxes' plane, Emmanuel

And when it chooses to escape over a wall, the damage is smilingly tolerated as if it were done by a misbehaving toddler:

Emmanuel college wall damage

It is a wonderful, beautiful tree, with a beguiling historical connection. Autumn is a great time of year to see it:

Plane leaves, Emmanuel

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…

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4 thoughts on “Plane amazing

  • J Prince

    There’s a similarly impressive, sprawling oriental plane tree in Ely. See the Ely Tree Trail for more info.

  • Wildlife Gardener

    68 more great trees to sigh over, Liz…

  • Liz Davies

    I have fallen in love with this great tree. I always spotted it from the bus leaving Cambridge, and at last have visited it in early Spring. I spent 30 mins. under the sprawling branches sighing with joy and delight at my serendipitous discovery, and taking pics. from every angle. Now I want to return in winter, when the snow adorns the branches.

    • This is a remarkable tree! Are there any other trees you would suggest to visit in Cambridge?

      Kind regards,



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