The few times I have thought of pollarding and coppicing, I had considered these tree-pruning practices something that full-time gardeners did to make huge English estates look intensely manicured and somewhat strange.

William Bryant Logan in “Sprout Lands: Tending the Endless Gift of Trees” has taught me that pollarding and coppicing take skill, but they aren’t effete, and the pruning practices actually helped humans survive from the end of the last Ice Age to the Industrial Revolution.

The book begins with two loosely related events in New York City, where Logan works as an arborist.

The first involves a huge, dying willow that Logan proposed removing from a city garden. Impossible, he was told, because E.B. White – who worked for New York City magazines while living in midcoast Maine – wrote in 1949 that if that willow, “long suffering and much climbed, held together by strands of wire” were to go, the whole city would go.

When efforts to save the tree failed, Logan took three sticks from it and stuck them in his property in Brooklyn. That fall, he noticed those sticks sprouting. The famed willow had refused to die. Logan said in a telephone interview that parts of that willow have been replanted throughout the city.

The second event came when Logan’s company was hired to plant 40 London plane trees in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. These trees were to have a single stem (trunk) at the ground and up several yards the stem has several horizontal branches, where they would form a hedge floating above the museum entrance. He had cut off most of the trees’ branches, leaving only a few at the top with buds he hoped would leaf out.

He was afraid he had killed those trees. To learn more, he embarked on a study of pollarding and coppicing all over the world.

That history is a large part of this engaging book.

But first, the definitions.

Coppicing is when a tree is cut back to the ground and new stems sprout either from the cut or nearby roots to create younger versions of the same tree. Gardeners will notice this effect when they cut down a weed tree or shrub such as a Norway maple or burning bush, hoping to get rid of it, and notice the next year that a younger version of the tree has returned.

Pollarding follows the same principle, only instead of the cut being made at ground level, it is made well up the tree trunk.

Logan takes his readers to England, Europe, India, Africa, Japan, California and back to New York, explaining the botanical reasons the trees re-sprout and how people take advantage of it.

His descriptions of the botany are lyrical, for example when he compares the growth of a pollarded tree to John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” which starts with a simple melody and progresses to unexpected complexities.

“Every tree is a jazz player,” Logan writes, “although where a long Coltrane piece might last a quarter of an hour, a tree’s performance may go on for half a millennium or more.”

Of the coppice cultures Logan covers, three interested me most.

In Europe 10,000 years ago, forests were leveled intentionally by burning or cutting. Wood sprouts, especially oak, were cut on 10- to 20-year cycles to create posts, beams and walls for housing. Rope was made from the inner bark of lindens. Streets over boggy land were created by weaving small and supple sprouts into long sheets. Fresh leaves fed the people’s animals. Coppicing created the communities and held them together.

In the Basque Country between Spain and France in the 1500s, coppicing and pollarding were essential to the community. The highest achievement had to do with ship construction. For the best sailing ships in the world, the shipbuilders waited 40 years for oak trees to grow with U-shaped trunks, curved to serve as the frame for a ship’s hull. Other pollarded wood formed other parts of the ships.

When Europeans first arrived in California, the local tribes regularly burned the land, which resulted in a wide variety of food plants, especially acorns, as well as a home to many game animals. These tribes were known for their baskets, woven from herbaceous and woody shoots. Tree shoots also provided material for arrows, spears, harpoons, fish nets and more.

The fire coppice, in which the natives burned between 6 and 16 percent of the state each year, ceased only when European settlers ordered it stopped.

“Maybe the California Indians were smarter than we are,” Logan writes. “Their regular burning avoided the destructive wildfires that plague the state today. Belatedly, in the twenty-first century, even the Forest Service has come around to the idea that a regular burn is good not only for preventing wildfires but also for creating the most diverse and healthy landscapes.”

Logan believes this generation has some things to learn from those generations of coppicing and pollarding.

“They serve as a kind of model for taking as much as we need from nature and giving the plants back as we can,” Logan said in the interview. “We are probably not going to live like that, but it is not beyond our abilities to do that, and it is more sustainable.”

He mentioned two ways Mainers could use coppicing and pollarding.

Christmas tree farmers could make their tree cuts leaving a ring of branches at the bottom. One of the branches would become dominant, creating a harvestable tree more quickly than with traditional methods.

He also said several organic farmers are creating coppiced hedges, as they do in England, to feed livestock and separate pastures.

Logan has several Maine connections. He owns a summer home on Long Island, and he has a grandson who lives in Maine. His two sisters-in-law run restaurants in the midcoast.

He has scheduled bookstore events April 3 at Left Bank Books in Belfast and April 4 at Print, a Bookstore, in Portland.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: