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Why Plane Trees Line the Roads in France

You don’t have to drive very far in France before you encounter a road shaded from either side by an avenue of towering Plane trees.  Many of the Planes are around 200 years old, and as much a part of French roads as the motorists and cyclists who use them. Likewise, you can often find Plane trees planted in the centres of villages and towns around France, offering large areas of shade for the weary traveller. Measuring up to 50 metres in height, the trees are an impressive sight wherever you encounter them.

French Tree Lined Roads (by Flyer84)

Plane trees currently line the World Heritage Site, Canal du Midi, in Southern France. It is estimated that there are over 40,000 of them along its banks.  In recent years, however, a disease accidentally introduced by American munitions boxes during the Second World War has begun to affect the trees, and a systematic program of felling and replanting is currently underway in order to try to eradicate it. So far over 2,500 trees have had to be removed, and it is likely that in the coming years many more will follow. Scientists have now created a strain of the tree which is resistant to the disease currently killing off its elderly relative.

Debate rages about who planted the trees, and why the species was chosen, but the little that is known enables you to imagine how it could be that the tree-lined routes came into being. The Plane trees which line the routes of France are a hybrid of Asian and American sycamore trees which were first created, by accident, in Oxford in the 16th century.  The tree, sometimes known as the London Plane, with its pretty mottled bark, fast-growing ability and disease resistance, has proved itself to be particularly tolerant of the urban environment

Popular stories attribute them to Napoleon and even Henry IV in the sixteenth century.  What is known for certain is that the nobility favoured the planting of trees to offer shade to foodstuffs being brought to their chateau.  By planting trees it was more likely that the food would maintain its freshness and not spoil.  Routes connecting towns favoured by the nobility are most likely to include trees planted for this reason.

Another confirmed order was given by the Emperor Napoleon, who decreed that the Planes should be planted extensively in the South of France to offer shade and shelter to his marching armies.

Many people in France today believe that the Plane tree lined roads represent a danger to motorists. They state that the centuries old Planes are planted too close to the roadside, and for reasons of road safety, in some regions of France any tree within 1.5m of a public highway is being removed.

The French landscape has changed considerably over the last millennium, castles have given way to chateau and open roads have become tree lined avenues.  It is likely that in the decades to come, the landscape will change again, and the countryside of France will be open once more.


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