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.
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 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.”
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.”
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:
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.
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.