Pollarded Platanus


Planatus x acerifolia ?  Either a London Planetree, or an American Sycamore- we know now that the interesting structure is created through pruning.

Planatus x acerifolia ? Either a London Planetree, or an American Sycamore- we know now that the interesting structure is created through pruning.

Gwennie supplied the answer.

Gwennie’s first message suggested these beautiful trees belong to the genus Platanus.

The distinctive leaves and bark help identify this tree as a Platanus

The distinctive leaves and bark help identify this tree as a Platanus.  Growth from the base, and from buds along the trunk, is stimulated by the frequent pruning necessary to maintain the pollarded form of the crown.

That much I had surmised from my field guides to trees and internet searching.  But which one?  I wasn’t finding a species or cultivar with these  strange, knobby branches!

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I had narrowed it down to something akin to the American Sycamore Platanus occidentalis, the London Planetree, Platanus x acerifolia, or the  Oriental Planetree Platanus orientalis.

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But what hybrid or cultivar?  Nothing seemed to quite fit exactly.

But then Gwennie supplied the answer, as of course a European gardener would:  these trees have been pollarded.

Our trees last December 27.  Do you see the new growth at the "knobs"?  This was pruned away over the winter.

Our trees last December 27. Do you see the new growth at the “knobs”? This was pruned away over the winter.

Of course!  And  the clues were all there.

The same trees, photographed on March 12, 2014.

The same trees, photographed on March 12, 2014.

To pollard a tree is an ancient practice. 

Like coppicing, one cuts back the new growth on a regular schedule to shape and train a tree, to maintain its size, or to harvest its wood.

Unlike coppicing, where one may cut the tree or shrub back to the ground; pollarding leaves the basic framework of the tree in place, and simply cuts back new growth to a given point.

This may be done annually, or once every several years depending on the gardener’s needs.

In England, where much of the old growth forest was harvested for building, the practice of pollarding was practiced to grow and harvest wood for building fences and other useful things, without killing the tree.

Some farmers would feed pruned branches and leaves to livestock, others used it for construction or even firewood.

Why does this photo remind me of Tolkien's Ents?

Why does this photo remind me of Tolkien’s Ents?

And here is this quintessentially European practice demonstrated in Colonial Williamsburg!

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Pollarding trees is a common practice in many European cities- less so in large American cities.

This pruning technique keeps the overall size of the tree in check.  But it also makes the tree much stronger and safer.

An American Sycamore growing on the Colonial Parway shows no signs of pruning.

An American Sycamore growing on the Colonial Parkway shows few signs of pruning.

By limiting the growth of branches, those which remain grow larger and stronger.

October 18 parkway 018

Wind moves through the tree easily, reducing storm damage.

Our heavily pruned oaks in December.  They survived the summer, after pruning, and show beautiful new growth this spring.

Our heavily pruned oaks in December. They survived the summer, after pruning, and show beautiful new growth this spring.

Pollarded trees are far less likely to fall in a storm because their reduced canopy won’t resist the wind in the same way a large, unpruned tree will catch the wind in its branches, much like a sail.

We decided to severely prune several large trees in our own garden last summer.  Strong winds in a summer thunderstorm took down three huge old oak trees quite unexpectedly.  They fell towards the street, but we could plainly see what might have happened had they fallen in a different direction….

The pruning was a bit too drastic for my taste, but then I hate to prune a rose...

The pruning was a bit too drastic for my taste, but then I hate to prune a rose…

The decision was a hard one for me to accept, but it was pointed out, by my very practical partner and his arborist allies, that this severe pruning would protect both the trees, and our home.

July 23 2013 001

And so they cut.  And cut; and chipped up beautiful branches full of new summer leaves.

July 23 2013 004

It was so painful to watch, and yet I realized that with the strange storms blowing across the planet these days it was absolutely necessary.

Although July is the wrong time for such an operation (if we thought we could, we would have waited for November) we had the work done, and then hoped for the best.

And all of our trees now show new, vigorous growth.

April 21, 2014 hypertufa pot and pedastal 022

Not only have they survived their pruning ordeal, they are bouncing back.

It just shows the incredible resilience of established  trees.

In fact, one use of pollard style pruning is to maintain trees in a more juvenile state.

May 24 2014 vines 032

Rather than allowing them to mature and establish huge  canopies, one keeps them lean.  (This reminds me of the longevity diet plans which claim to extend human life through under-consumption of food, and maintaining a very lean weight.   Please don’t ask when I plan to get serious with this approach….)

There are some very very old, and very contorted trees in parts of the colonial district, which have intrigued me.  They are mostly hollow, and more sculpture than tree.

A friend posing with one of these beautiful old trees near the Colonial Capitol in CW last December.

A friend posing with one of these beautiful old trees near the Colonial Capitol in CW last December.

It seems that one of the effects of continual pollarding is to eventually create a very old tree with a hollow trunk.   Now I’m keen to re-visit these old trees, and see if they can be identified by their leaves.

Pollarding isn’t reserved to just Platanus species.  It is also used with many broadleaf deciduous trees, including beech, oak, redbud, Malus, Cornus, Acer, Salix, and others.  (More on Crepe-Murder here.)

This pruning practice is also used to control Wisteria, Lonicera, and Clematis vines.

Growth may be controlled on Wisteria vines, and flowering increased, through pollarding the fine.

Growth may be controlled on Wisteria vines, and flowering increased, by pruning the vines.

Wherever a steady supply of new growth is desired, pollarding can be practiced to increase the supply of flowers, juvenile foliage, and new growth wood.

I am still not positive about the identification of these Platanus trees.

While they resemble our native American Sycamore trees, a case can be made to identify them more properly as Platanus x acerifolia “Bloodgood.”  Also known as the London planetree, or hybrid plane, this hybrid claims both the American Sycamore and  the oriental plane as parents.

This naturally occurring hybrid first turned up as seedlings in Spain in the 17th Century.  Beautiful, strong, and disease resistant, Platanus x acerifolia went into the nursery trade early on and is the preferred Platanus for urban plantings.  Not only does the hybrid withstand heat, drought, soil compaction, and pollution, but it has superior resistance to the anthracnose virus.

So, while not sure of the exact species or cultivar, we will agree that these lovely trees are Platanus, some variety of Sycamore or Plane trees.

May 24 2014 vines 029

And they are living works of art.  Lovely in all seasons, sturdy and useful;  they inspired me to learn a bit more about them.

And with Gwennie’s assistance, a new understanding of tree cultivation has opened up.

Thank you, Gwennie!

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All photos by Woodland Gnome 2013-2014


About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

12 responses to “Pollarded Platanus

  1. Thanks for this very informative post. Pollarding seems very practical as you explain it, rather than the torture that it looks to be! 🙂

    • Perhaps it is all in how you look at cultivated plants: Do we cultivate them for our own use and purposes, or do we grow them in order to let them express their own natural beauty?
      Science has documented that plants experience pain when we cut them- they even respond biochemically to our thoughts about cutting them .
      In a society where sustainable wood harvests are necessary, or where prunings from trees are an important livestock fodder I can understand why a farmer might need to pollard his trees. In our culture, where the harvested wood isn’t needed or used, it becomes another matter entirely. I honestly don’t know whether CW interprets the historical significance of these pollarded Platanus trees to visitors. Since Williamsburg/Jametown/Yorktown were clear-cut by the early colonists, perhaps they do… Thank you for visiting Forest Garden today, Eliza. Best wishes, WG

  2. WG, very interesting. How would you say this is different from “topping” which arborists just have fits over? Is there a distinction? And you know I feel passionately (almost violently) about the crape murder/maiming/mutilation still being perpetrated every spring. Interesting that this is common practice in Europe. I had no idea. But, I have to say, my old graceful and heavily canopied oaks will remain as is although I am working on a espalier of a fig. That’s as much pruning as I care to do!! Thanks for an informative post, as usual.

    • Dear Barbar- First, I’m tempted to ask any advocate of “topping” how they would like to have it done to them…
      Cattiness aside, when done to a very young tree, like a fruit bearing whip, the practice of topping does encourage fruit bearing branches. I know it is common practice with food producing vines- like grapes- to pinch out the main leader when the desired height is achieved. In orchards, pruning the main leader helps maintain a manageable size to the trees.
      Topping of mature trees, for convenience, is another issue entirely. We see a lot of that with “power company arborists” who just cut a tree a few feet below their power lines. Such maming! Although there may be pruning of the central leader at the beginning of the “pollarding” process, it seems that annual pruning takes new growth back to exactly the same point each year- leaving the tree’s structure intact and removing only newly grown branches. Sunscald and fungal infections of the wood are potentially less likely since the pruning wounds are smaller, and the amount of canopy removed at any one time much less. Good question! So many Crepes are “murdered” each year around here that it is getting difficult to find a natural, graceful tree. Granted, thinning and sucker removal is necessary to keep the tree in check- but so many people prune their Myrtles each year with a chain saw. They look like amputees for half of the year. The treatment of Chaste Tree is even worse….Good for your oaks! So long as they are far enough away from your home that it isn’t endangered if they fall, let them grow in peace 😉 A close friend lost 20+ mature oaks from her front yard in a hurricane in 2002- the storms have been brutal to trees in W’burg in recent years. She and I chatted last night about making a road trim in your direction soon 😉 Best wishes, WG

      • You know I would love to have you. When you have a moment, if you haven’t already read it, i wrote a semi-tongue-in-cheek post called “Into the Dungeon” a while back detailing what I would like to do to crape-maimers. OK, I definitely get the distinction now between pollarding and topping — I am getting so smart from reading your blog! And I will not be asking anytime soon about that dratted diet you mention. Life is too short.

        • A woman after my own heart! I will definitely read your bit on Crepe-maimers- sounds like fun! 93 here, and I’m headed to the basement to make some hypertufa. So glad you’re reading Forest Garden and asking great questions 😉 Always learning- keeps us young ;-)Can’t wait to see what wonders await around your garden- By the way- posted photos last night to the A&A site should you want to take a look. Will send the link again n email if you need it. Best, WG

        • Wonderful! I’m getting ready to embed a link. Thank you for another wonderful piece- illustrated! (You are more merciful than I- let the perpetrator have a fitting time out to consider what he has done….)


  3. Janet Craig

    I humbly offer an alternative viewpoint of pollarding. There may be a few good reasons to pollard a tree, in the mind of some, even if one is not a destitute English farmer of days of yore…but from the Master Gardener angle, to reduce graceful tree limbs to stumps is to severely diminish the natural beauty of grace and form of that tree. And it will never come back right again. Many critics of this widespread practice refer to pollarding of the Crape Myrtle – a particularly common tree to receive this treatment – as Crape “Murder.” I’ll throw my hat in the ring for selectively thinning rather than knobbing. A knobby tree is about as lovely (to my eyes!) as knobby knees!!

    • Well Janet, in the case of Crepe Myrtles especially, I stand with you on the practice. And it will never come back to the graceful form of the original. (Sadly, someone took a chainsaw to the lovey Crepe Myrtles at our entrance early last summer. It was touch and go for a while, but I believe they have survived)

      There are reasons to do it, but the tree is forever changed once one does…. And I also wonder whether this is another area in which American sensibilities in gardening differ from those of European gardeners, who work with different limitations and growing conditions… ?

      Thank you for sharing the Master Gardener perspective 😉 Best wishes, WG

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