Practical and pretty, buttons to boulevards

Paul Epp
Paul Epp

They are dressed in camo colours: splotches of tan and green and various shades of brown, and they are lined up along the sidewalks as we flash by in the cab. But no, fortunately, they are not armed. They are not even soldiers, although they have the correct upright posture. They are trees: plane trees, or London planes, our companionable urban friends.

I first encountered them in New York City, many years ago. They were not providing much shade in the Peace River country or anywhere else on the Canadian Prairies, and they were a new experience for me. They seem to like the cities, especially the large cosmopolitan ones, steeped in history.

For me, they have all of the evocative associations of travel, culture, intrigue and the infinite possibilities of those discoveries so precious to the young. London, of course, and Paris, Sydney, Shanghai … you won’t find them without a very deliberate search in Toronto, I’m afraid. There are a few in some parks, but there are only a few of these large sidewalk trees actually doing that job: one in front of OCAD University and a few more on Bain Avenue, down the hill away from Broadview. But those are majestic, large and wonderful, with their bark splitting, flaking and pulling apart (exfoliating), revealing the history of their changes in colour: a very light tan nearest the inside and then progressively darker as the flakes age: greens and browns, ochres, and taupes, umbers and other reddish browns and all varieties of gray. The leaves are large and reminiscent of maples, and the name of the tree derives from a Greek word that means ‘broad’, describing them. They are characterized by a nice bole that branches at a convenient, people friendly height and then spreads broadly, providing their welcome shade and leafy environment. The mostly hidden, but telltale fruits are pendant-spiked balls (inflorescences), lychee-sized and coloured, sparsely allocated to the many limbs.

It turns out that the London plane is an inadvertent or at least unintended hybrid between the Asian plane tree and its American cousin, which is better known as the sycamore or buttonwood tree. Confusingly, what the English call sycamore, we call maple, so we are safest staying with plane. It seems to tolerate inner-city life, with its smog and other abuses, if not happily, then at least with good grace.

It has a light-coloured wood for its dominant sapwood and a reddish, darker heart with a very prominent medullary ray. There are two good reasons for quarter-sawing this material. One is that it is notoriously unstable when plain-sawn, but very nicely stable when quartered. The other is that the quarter-cutting reveals the rays to their best advantage, leaving a handsome freckled wood sometimes marketed as lacewood.

The grain is interlocked, which makes it hard to split. I wonder if this caused it to have a history of being made into buttons? If so, that time is long gone and forgotten. The wood also has a history of use for cutting boards and chopping blocks and food-containing boxes and bowls. It doesn’t impart odor or colour, so is naturally food-safe. The most common use for it that I am familiar with is for drawer sides. Its resistance to splitting allowed it to be cut thinly and its stability when quartered made it ideal for this use, although the prettiness of the lacy pattern was usually hidden. Of course, who uses solid wood for drawer sides anymore? It’s a nice indication of the age of some casework, to open a drawer and find the thin panels nicely dovetailed to the fronts. Another era, when woodwork meant something different than what it means now.

I made a reception desk for the London Regional Art Gallery from its wood, many years ago. The architect, Raymond Moriyamna, wanted an approachable desk, welcoming rather than reserving, with tactile elements and a neutral colour. The plane served us well for this and it left me with a pleasant familiarity with the lumber, to accompany my appreciation for the tree.

They bring to my mind a term like boulevardier, that habitué of the dense inner cores of the world’s great cities, which will have these trees as a strong visual identifier and companion. How about a Gauloises to go with my pastis, as I read the paper in some sidewalk café, contemplating the passers-by and my prospects for the evening ahead?

Paul Epp is professor at OCAD University and chair of its Industrial Design Department.



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