Pollarding, a pruning system involving the removal of the upper branches of a tree, promotes a dense head of foliage and branches. In ancient Rome, Propertius mentioned pollarding during the 1st century BCE. The practice has occurred commonly in Europe since medieval times and takes place today in urban areas worldwide, primarily to maintain trees at a predetermined height.
Traditionally, people pollarded trees for one of two reasons: for fodder to feed livestock or for wood. Fodder pollards produced "pollard hay", which was used as livestock feed; they were pruned at intervals of two to six years so their leafy material would be most abundant. Wood pollards were pruned at longer intervals of eight to fifteen years, a pruning cycle that tended to produce upright poles favored for fence rails and posts, as well as for boat construction. Supple young willow or hazel branches may be harvested as material for weaving baskets, fences, and garden constructions such as bowers. Nowadays the practice is sometimes used for ornamental trees, such as crepe myrtles in southern states of the USA, although the resulting tree has a stunted form rather than a natural-looking crown.
One consequence of pollarding is that pollarded trees tend to live longer than unpollarded specimens because they are maintained in a partially juvenile state and because they do not have the weight and windage of the top part of the tree. Older pollards often become hollow, so can be difficult to age accurately. Pollards tend to grow slowly, with narrower growth rings in the years immediately after cutting.
Pollarding began with walled cities in Europe which did not have room for large trees. The smaller limbs that resulted could be used for heat and cooking.
As in coppicing, the tradition of pollarding is to encourage the tree to produce new growth on a regular basis to maintain a supply of new wood for various purposes, particularly for fuel. In some areas, dried leafy branches are stored as winter fodder for stock. Depending upon the use of the cut material, the length of time between cutting will vary from one year for tree hay or withies, to five years or more for larger timber. Sometimes, only some of the regrown stems may be cut in a season – this is thought to reduce the chances of death of the tree when recutting long-neglected pollards.
Pollarding was preferred over coppicing in wood-pastures and other grazed areas, because animals would browse the regrowth from coppice stools. Historically, the right to pollard or "lop" was often granted to local people for fuel on common land or in royal forests; this was part of the right of Estover.
An incidental effect of pollarding in woodland is the encouragement of underbrush growth due to increased levels of light reaching the woodland floor. This can increase species diversity. However, in woodland where pollarding was once common but has now ceased, the opposite effect occurs, as the side and top shoots develop into trunk-sized branches. An example of this can be seen in Epping Forest in London/Essex, UK, the majority of which was pollarded until the late 19th century. Here, the light that reaches the woodland floor is extremely limited owing to the thick growth of the pollarded trees.
Pollards cut at only about a metre or so above the ground are called stubs (or stubbs). These were often used as markers in coppice or other woodland. Stubs cannot be used where the trees are browsed by animals, as the regrowing shoots are below the browse line.
Although people who migrated to the United States from Europe continued the practice, experts have come to believe that pollarding older trees harms the tree. The smaller limbs grow from wood that is not as strong, and the weaker trees will not live as long and can be more easily damaged by storms.
As with coppicing, only species with vigorous epicormic growth may be made into pollards. In these species (which include many broadleaved trees but few conifers), removal of the main apical stems releases the growth of many dormant buds under the bark on the lower part of the tree. Trees without this growth will, of course, die without their leaves and branches. Some smaller tree species do not readily form pollards, because cutting the main stem stimulates growth from the base, effectively forming a coppice stool instead. Examples of trees that do well as pollards include broadleaves such as beeches (Fagus), oaks (Quercus), maples (Acer), black locust or false acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia), hornbeams (Carpinus), lindens and limes (Tilia), planes (Platanus), horse chestnuts (Aesculus), mulberries (Morus), Eastern redbud (Cercis canadensis), tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), willows (Salix), and a few conifers, such as yews (Taxus).
The technique is used in Africa for moringa trees to bring the nutritious leaves into easier reach for harvesting. Pollarding is also used in urban forestry in certain areas for reasons such as tree size management, safety, and health concerns. It removes rotting or diseased branches to support the overall health of the tree and removes living and dead branches that could harm property and people, as well as increasing the amount of foliage in spring for aesthetic, shade and air quality reasons. Some trees may be rejuvenated by pollarding — for example, Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana "Bradford"), a beautiful flowering species when young that becomes brittle and top-heavy when older.
Oaks, when very old, can form new trunks from the growth of pollard branches, i.e. surviving branches which have split away from the main branch naturally.
Origin and usage of term
"Poll" was originally a name for the top of the head, and "to poll" was a verb meaning "to crop the hair". This use was extended to similar treatment of the branches of trees and the horns of animals. A pollard simply meant someone or something that had been polled (similar to the formation of "drunkard" and "sluggard"); for example, a hornless ox or polled livestock. Later, the noun pollard came to be used as a verb: "pollarding". Pollarding has now largely replaced polling as the verb in the forestry sense. Pollard can also be used as an adjective: "pollard tree".
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