It's the Plants, Darling, Ministry of Controversy

Beauty and the Beasts

Pollarded willows (Salix viminalis) in the Netherlands.

Pollarded basket willows (Salix viminalis) in the Netherlands. Shutterstock photo.


Paul Hetzler has an ax to grind.

“Tree topping is a subject I can really get worked up about.

It’s unprofessional, unsightly, outrageous, unethical, dangerous, and I even suspect it causes more frequent rainy weekends and bad-hair days.” Hetzler is the natural resources and horticulture specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County in New York.

Crepe myrtle, Georgia Interstate 75 Rest Area.

Topped crepe myrtle along Georgia Interstate 75.

Steve Bender can get wound up about tree topping, too. Bender is Southern Living’s funny and informative Grumpy Gardener. One of his pet peeves is the cultural butchery of crepe myrtles across the southern USA.

Greg Grant doesn’t mince words, either: “Cut the crap, not the crape.” Grant is a horticulturist, conservationist and writer from Tyler, Texas.

Regardless of the spelling—crepe or crape—thousands of crepe myrtles (Lagerstroemia) are being severely pruned for no good reason.

Crepe myrtle in Chapel Hill, NC.

Crepe myrtle coat racks in Chapel Hill, NC.

Crepe myrtle is an elegant, small tree. There is no practical reason for “crepe murder.” You can’t blame Cerberus, the multi-headed mythological monster for the atrocity. Tree topping is a naughty coat-rack ritual. Landscapers and arborists keep it in play because they can find a little extra winter work.

With very few exceptions, the rule is: leave small trees alone. If you need to prune crepe myrtles, don’t slaughter them. “Judicious pruning, if need be,” advises Steve Bender.

Tree topping is a bad example of pollarding. Pollarding is a pruning practice that goes back to Ancient Rome, then became familiar to Europeans in medieval times. The word pollard originated from the word, poll, which meant “top of the head.” The infinitive verb to poll translated to “hair cut.” photo photo

There are good haircuts and bad ones. Think of “crepe murder” with the faint fondness you feel for your least favorite mullet.

While lopping off the tops of crepe myrtles is still commonplace, mullets have fallen out of fashion. Meanwhile, pollarding has an upside. At least you won’t be put to death if you experiment with the pruning technique.

It wasn’t always so.

As Paul Hetzler explained, “…peasants could be put to death for cutting down the king’s trees but were allowed to clip each year’s twig extension back to a callus ‘“ball”’ for use as fuel and fodder.”

He adds: “Pollarding does not work on all species, and to be successful must be started when a tree is relatively young.”

London plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia), in Tivoli Gardens, Florence, Italy.

Pollarded plane tree (Platanus x acerifolia), in Tivoli Gardens, Florence, Italy.

Lindens (Tilia), beech (Fagus), black locust (Robinia), plane tree (Platanus) and willows (Salix) are loyal pollarding subjects.

British horticulturist and writer, Dan Pearson, is keeping the age-old pollarding tradition alive for firewood.

British tree and landscape consultant Peter Thurman said, via email, “Pollarding was historically a way of managing trees on a cyclical basis—for firewood and feeding livestock, including deer. Many ancient pollards have survived storms by way of their low center of gravity. Europe is full of them, although many were cut down on the continent for firewood in World Wars I and II.”

The Ancient Tree Forum has interesting historic accounts of pollarding in the British Lake District and Cumbria:

Salix caprea. Michael Dodge photo.

Salix caprea. Michael Dodge photo.

Thurman says pollarding has a place in today’s landscapes: “With my designer’s hat on, I would say pollarding is a way of having big trees in small spaces.”

Michael Dodge, a horticulturist, photographer and native of the Lake District made his way to America on the Queen Mary I in 1964 to pursue a successful career in horticulture.

Willows are his latest obsession. He has collected hundreds of different species and cultivars.

Margaret Roach interviews Michael Dodge here:

Willows are easy to propagate. Some are candidates for pollarding. The fat and fuzzy winter flowering catkins are especially beautiful.

Salix gracistyla. Michael Dodge photo.

Salix gracistyla. Michael Dodge photo.

Last spring, I bought bundles of five cuttings each from two cultivars. I stuck them directly into the ground. They rooted with no fuss. The rooted cuttings will be transplanted next spring and trained as small flowering pollards or coppiced—cut back to the ground—for late winter flowering catkin cut stems.

Willows (Salix) are the place to start if you want to try your hand at clonal (cutting) propagation.

I can’t guarantee that you’ll become a salicologist like Michael Dodge, but rooting and growing a few willows may be where a new garden obsession begins.

Posted by on February 8, 2017 at 7:12 am, in the category It's the Plants, Darling, Ministry of Controversy.

7 responses to “Beauty and the Beasts”

  1. Allen Bush Allen Bush says:

    Christine, thank you for sharing the interesting link about the pollarded pines. Interesting connection between the pine’s firewood and pin boulange.

  2. Nell says:

    I’ve broadened my horizons since, but will never forget the horror I felt on first seeing rows of pollarded trees on a January visit to the Berkeley campus forty years ago. I’m assuming they’re still there, and am now inspired to search for a photo of what they look like in leaf.

    Crape murder isn’t common here in western Virginia, maybe because until this last decade gardeners and landscapers almost never planted crape myrtles. Climate change and availability of hardier cultivars have apparently made them an option, at least in “urban” (in town) locations that are becoming legit zone 7. Happy to say all the ones I’m aware of have been allowed to grow with minimal, natural pruning — and their bark is a joy in winter. They’d be a lot less charming if they got to be a common planting choice here — give me a dogwood every time — but at least they’re not modeling bad, brutal pruning.

  3. JodiepCook says:

    Oh there is a good reason for all this chopping….maintenance workers who need something to do and can’t leave well enough alone, because they are not paid to observe plants growing. Here in Orange County, CA – land of intensively ‘managed’ landscapes – it is rampant. Chopping simply because there are a crew of paid workers who need to do something.

    Keep in mind that there is also a right time and wrong time to touch a tree from a bird’s perspective. In my community we are trying to re-educate landscapers to trim trees based not on THEIR schedule, but only if a tree needs it for public safety reasons and NOT when birds are nesting – two things typically ignored in managed landscapes. It’s a bugaboo for many.

  4. Christine says:

    What an interesting piece, and thank you for the link to the Ancient Tree Forum – fascinating! Here in France plane trees are regularly pollarded and I always thought it as butchery. You have slightly softened my point of view. You might be interested in a very local and old practice of pollarding common pines for firewood, especially for bread ovens (hence the name of ‘pin boulange’ in the local dialect). The shapes produced are lovely, almost bonsai-like, but the practice has almost died out. Here is a link to some photographs.

  5. marcia says:

    Here is central CA., the tree to abuse by pollarding is the fruitless mulberry. Its sold to folks who want instant shade on a tiny city lot. Ugly beyond belief! They are monster trees left to their own devices and great example of wrong tree, wrong place. My big box doesn’t carry them any more, but it is still the most commonly requested tree

  6. Allen Bush Allen Bush says:

    Laura, judging by your photos, you’ve got the best looking crepe myrtle in town.

  7. Laura Munoz says:

    Well, hey, great minds think alike. I just posted a similar rant on my own blog. Is it okay to put the link here? If not, just don’t post this comment and I’ll make another comment without the link.

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