Pollarding is a long term commitment.

Coppicing and pollarding are the most extreme of pruning techniques. They may also be among the oldest in some cultures. Yet, arborists are correct to condemn both as improper. Coppicing is the complete removal of all stems and trunks back to a stump. Pollarding is the removal of all stems back to main stems and trunks. Both procedures happen in winter, annually or every few years.

Both coppicing and pollarding stimulate vigorous and prolific cane growth during the next season. Lush foliage of such growth is useful as fodder. Foliage of pollarded mulberry is the primary food of silk worms. Canes are good kindling for the following winter. Thin canes of various species are useful for basketry. New foliage of pollarded eucalypti is useful for both essential oils and floristry.

Of course, few rely on modern urban gardens for fodder, kindling, eucalyptus oil, or basketry material.

Arborists disapprove of coppicing and pollarding because both techniques ruin trees. Many of such trees are too structurally compromised to support the weight of secondary growth after the first year. Consequently, they rely on annual coppicing or pollarding. Some trees will support their weight for a few years. Strangely though, many properly coppiced or pollarded trees live for centuries.

Coppiced trees generate from stumps of cut down trees. Ideally, they begin young. Grafted trees are less cooperative. They are likely to generate suckers below their graft unions. Pollarded trees get to develop their main trunks and limbs prior to their first pollarding procedure. The locations of the first pollarding cuts is very important. Subsequent pruning will be back to the same locations.

Distended ‘knuckles’ develop after repeated coppicing or pollarding back to the original pruning sites. Pruning must be flush to these knuckles. Stubs interfere with healing. Annual pruning leaves smaller wounds than less frequent pruning. Secondary growth should be able to overgrow wounds efficiently. Cutting below knuckles leaves wounds that may be too big to heal before they decay.

11 thoughts on “Coppicing And Pollarding Annoy Arborists

  1. Pollarding is a classic street tree treatment in France – you see it everywhere. Re your comment that trees are ‘structurally compromised’, does that mean that the trees that are classically pollarded here (plane trees/limes) are more able to support this ‘structural compromise’ than other species?

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    1. No, . . . but yes. Planes (which we know as sycamores) are able to recover from polllarding, even if never pollarded again. Although they should be pollarded annually after getting pollarded for the first time, they do not require it. I am unfamiliar with limes, but suspect that they are similarly resilient to compromised structural integrity. Trees that are not as resilient to structural compromise are able to support themselves because they get pollarded the following winter, before they get too heavy for their structural deficiency. Mulberry, for example, can start collapsing from its own weight in only the second year after pollarding. Of course, it is not a problem if pollarded annually. Pollarding is rare here because so few arborists know how to do it properly, and even fewer who can to it properly are willing to do so. It is very stigmatized, partly because so few know how to do it properly, but also because arborists believe that it is morally wrong. We are more inclined to plant trees that are proportionate to their particular application than a tree that needs to be pollarded for confinement.
      European pollarding (which we know as ‘English’ pollarding) allows a single or maybe two stubs to remain on each knuckle, which elongates the knuckles slightly annually, as in the illustration. The knuckles do not get so bulky, and can be pruned back if necessary. For my own trees, I still prefer to pollard back to the same knuckles, without leaving single stubs to elongate the knuckles. The problem with this technique is that the knuckles eventually get too distended to compartmentalize off of their pruning wounds, and start to decay, but can not be cut back. Of course this takes a very long time, so my pollarded trees will survive longer than I will. I believe that this technique was popularized here in the west, and migrated east. It was used by people of Chinese descent to produce lush mulberry foliage for silkworms. It was later adapted to olive trees that were formerly grown to produce oil. As homes were built where the orchards had been, some of these trees remained in home gardens. Most of the inhabitants of such homed disliked either the messy fruit or the pollen. Since only year old stems can bloom, annually pollarded trees are unable to bloom or produce fruit.

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  2. I recently noticed that many of the crape myrtles in my area had received their annual pollarding. They must be doing it correctly, because by the time the bloom arrives, the trees are lush and beautiful.

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    1. Well, even improperly pollarded crape myrtles will be lush. Structural deficiency does not affect foliage. However, I suspect that they are more likely to be pollarded properly in Texas than they are here. Horticulture is taken more seriously there than here.

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  3. Thanks for this blog Tony. Lots of useful info for us as we are moving our organic gardening farm to an agroforestry farm/garden and coppicing and pollarding will figure large in this. We will be doing the coppicing and pollarding to provide fodder, firewood, poles for many uses and small size lumber.

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    1. Pollarding and coppicing, as you know, can be very useful for those who know how to do it properly. Few of my colleagues would agree with that, of course. I intend to pollard a Schwedler maple to enhance the foliar color (which is merely ornamental), and so I can brag about it to my colleagues who disapprove of it. I already pollard a Eucalyptus pulverulenta for the silvery blue juvenile foliage. Children who come her for summer camp use it for crafts. I pollarded a blue gum, Eucalyptus globulus, for the aromatic juvenile foliage, but unfortunately, the species is not so agreeable to the technique.

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  4. I’d like to pick your brain for a moment here. I have a mature Chinese Elm that I’m pretty sure also has some amount of flux. It is “misshapen” due to prior bad pruning, trees that were allowed to grow too close by previous owners of our home (one was at least 20 feet tall growing right underneath!), broken limbs, etc. The offending trees have been removed, and we had the elm tree pruned a year ago, but it still looks horrible. There’s no balance to the branches and they are excessively high off the ground. I’m thinking of coppicing it to a four or five foot stump and allowing it to regrow from there with proper maintenance. I don’t want to chop it down to a stump because I’d like to have a head start on regaining shade. I have no idea how old the tree is but I would guess at least a few decades given it’s height and girth. It sprouted new canes after the pruning with no problem. What are your thoughts on this?

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    1. Wow! It is difficult to say without seeing the tree, and although I have no problem with pollarding and coppicing, my concern would be procuring the services of an arborist who would be willing and able to do it properly. Both techniques are so stigmatized here that they are not taught to arborists. You could find an arborist to cut the tree to a stump, but that might be all you can do.
      Chines elms happen to be conducive to both coppicing and pollarding. (Incidentally, both American and Siberian elms, although technically conducive to both techniques, are very susceptible to decay if the techniques are not performed properly. Chinese elm can be pollarded once, and recover completely with only structural pruning for the first several years afterward. The other elms do not necessarily need the process to be repeated annually, but do eventually need it to be repeated to some degree.)
      A four foot high stump is not much of a head start. It is so close to coppicing that it may as well get cut lower. New growth generates so aggressively that four feet makes no difference. (For coppicing, I happen to prefer stumps that are up off the ground because they are easier to work with. I would have no problem with a four foot high stump, even though it would be unsightly for a while.) Flux remains a concern though, and might continue to affect the coppiced stump. An arborist who performs the procedure might be able to determine the extend of the infection, but only after the procedure is performed. Even though it is generally harmless, it is unsightly and produces objectionable aroma.
      It is not uncommon for Chinese elm to be very asymmetrical. That is quite natural for them. Also, their canopies tend to be lofty, with pendulous growth hanging downward. It might be better to let the canopy cascade downward than to get it to grow upward again from a stump. When it was pruned last year, it may have been necessary to leave limbs that were unsightly only because there were no other options. As the tree gets pruned later, such limbs will be subordinated to limbs with better structure. I have no problem with coppicing and pollarding, but even without seeing the tree, I am hesitant to recommend such harsh procedures if they are not necessary.

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