London’s fossil trees.

Some of Ben’s family live in central London so we visit regularly.

I love London!

Many years ago I fell out of love with our capital and it’s taken me a long time to fall in love again.

One of the many things I love about London is that at every corner you turn and alongside all the streets you can see trees! The many parks are home to some of Britain’s finest trees and amongst the huge trees new trees are being planted.

Now, the majority of these trees keep a secret from the people of London…..

Their kind has been growing on this planet for (in some cases) over 150 million years!

The London plane (Platanus x acerifolia) for example is thought to be a hybrid between Platanus orientalis and P. occidentalis both species in the family Platanaceae in the order Proteales (yes their closest relatives are Proteas and unbelievably the sacred lotus (Nelumbo).  The fossil record of the Platanaceae goes back as far as the mid cretaceous, some 90 million years ago. A time when Pterosaurs still flew far above them and Iguanodons may have been happily munching away on them.

Plane trees on the Victoria Embankment

Unfortunately the London plane is currently suffering a mass extinction event all of its own. A fungal disease called Massaria or more specifically Splanchnonema platani is devastating them.

Newby on the block in more ways than one is the American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua).

As a response to the problem with Planes many new species of trees are being planted around London and one that seems to be used quite regularly is the Liquidambar.

Liquidambar styraciflua

One of the new Liquidambars in Paddington.

Sitting in the family Altingiaceae, its relatives have a fossil record extending back some 55 million (ish) years into the Eocene.

Foliage of Liquidambar growing in the Olympic park

Interestingly, underneath London is a Lagerstätten (an area of sedimentary deposit that exhibits extraordinary fossils with exceptional preservation) called the London Clay. The London clay was laid down during the early Eocene and amazingly hosts fossils of Liquidambar.

From the newest to one of the the oldest….

Gingko biloba, a tree, virtually extinct in the wild and grown and revered in Chinese and Japanese temple gardens (where it was discovered in the 1700s), is planted everywhere in the world’s largest cities.

Its elegant beauty, graceful habit and delicate looking foliage are the main reasons for its use but don’t be fooled into thinking this tree is fragile. It is also planted because it tough as old boots!

I love the shape of Gingko trees!

The fossil record of its relatives takes us all the way, 200 million years, to the Triassic (there are some, disputed, fossils from before this).  One Jurassic relative, Allicospermum, was very similar to modern Ginkgo and hailed from the area of the world that is now Yorkshire.

Our very own Ginkgo fossil

Ginkgo is currently regarded as closely related to conifers although there is a school of thought that they are more closely related to the long extinct Gymnosperms (nonflowering plants) the Cordaites.

Iconic Ginkgoes outside The Natural History Museum.

Incidentally, most of the Ginkgoes in London are male the reason being the females are a little bit smelly when in breeding mode! (click to read more on this)

On the subject of conifers, in London there are many. Most of the modern conifers have their roots firmly placed in the Triassic and certainly there are examples of all the major families living in London.

Pinaceae (pines), Araucariaceae (monkey puzzles), Cupressaceae (Redwoods and Cypress), Podocarpaceae (the southern hemisphere conifers) and Taxaceae (yews) are all present. Before the Jurassic they are hard to differentiate from their fossils. But during the Jurassic we start to see some fossilised fruit which makes life easier.

Notable London conifers for me are a small Giant redwood (Sequoiadendron giganteum) planted right alongside the A40 in the Paddington basin. It is planted so close to the edge of that road that one day (in a few hundred years) it will definitely tower over this main highway into central London.

On the corner of Hyde Park at the junction of Oxford Street, the A5, the Bayswater rd. and Park lane there stands a Dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). Again only a young tree, it stands there with a firm footing watching the madness of this junction unfold before it.

The Oxford street Metasequoia glyptostroboides

The Oxford street Metasequoia glyptostroboides watching the traffic.

There are many Monkey puzzles (Araucaria araucana) in London’s outskirts but not many in central London. Two, though, do come to mind. There is a youngish tree in Hyde Park that I remember as a small tree 10 or more years ago. It isn’t so small now! The other is not a tree but a pub, The Monkey Puzzle, in Paddington. It does I am pleased to say have a small ‘Puzzle’ in its garden although the large tree that gave it its name has long since gone.

As I walk around our capital I am always interested to see the great variety of plants being grown.  There are many Extant (current) species of plants related to fossil genera being grown in London’s gardens including Cycads, Magnolias and tree ferns but I am sure the owners of these great plants have little realisation that what they are growing is akin to a plant that survived the mass extinction event that saw off the dinosaurs.

I ask is this ability to survive the reason why they are doing so well? and in cases like the Plane trees of Berkeley Square (planted in 1789) the reason why they have survived in the dirt and pollution of London past and present?