A BOOK I READ RECENTLY changed the way I think about pruning, and actually about trees in general in the most profound way: William Bryant Logan’s “Sprout Lands: Tending the Endless Gift of Trees.” Logan is an arborist based in New York City, a member of the faculty at New York Botanical Garden, and the award-winning author of four books. His most recent, “Sprout Lands,” is a 10,000-year journey into our relationship with trees, their impact on our lives, and our culture.
Bill Logan and I talked about how mankind learned to use trees and evolved alongside them with their help; about pruning tactics like pollarding and coppicing; and also how nearly immortal trees are.
Read along as you listen to the May 20, 2019 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
Plus: Enter to win the book, in the comments box at the very bottom of the page.
our relationship with trees, with bill logan
Margaret: Welcome, Bill. Is it O.K. if I say Bill since everyone we know in common calls you Bill?
Bill: Yes, please do. I use William Bryant, because it includes my mother’s maiden name, which was Bryant.
Margaret: Yes. In the new book you celebrate what seems to be often lost knowledge, sort of this fundamental understanding of trees that many people today don’t seem to have And you tell their history and our history together. As an arborist, your relationship with trees spans many of your years, but our human relationship goes back how far?
Bill: Well as far as we know, to the Mesolithic, so 8,000 to 10,000 years. It may go beyond that, but we don’t have any record of it.
Margaret: Yes. When I say “relationship,” I’m not thinking as a gardener like, “Oh, I planted a Kousa dogwood in my front yard yesterday.” Not that type of relationship, but a relationship really like survival or interconnection. I wondered if you could give us some examples of some of the things that we and trees have done together over the millennia.
Bill: Sure. I mean, that was what was interesting me. I began the book because I was hired to pollard, to do a technique called pollarding, where you stub back branches at 6 foot high, for an ornamental project at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. So I figured I had to find out how to do it properly, and it was very difficult to find out. As I went around asking people, I learned more and more about the antiquity of this kind of pruning, and also the kind of pruning called coppice, that would cut trees all the way to the ground and allow them to grow back, and I found that it stretched way back in time, and was extremely important to cultures around the world.
You look at a place like Western Norway. There was no way they could have farmed and survived in Western Norway without being able to cut their ash, and lime, and other trees, and allow them to sprout back, and then every five years or so cut them again. And doing this, they made hay. They had both leaf hay and grass hay for their animals. And without that they wouldn’t have been able to raise the flocks they raised, and stay alive there. So it was important to them simply for making food stuff.
All over: I went into Spain and found that there they had pollarded both beech, and oak, and other trees. They would cut them at 6 feet height, so when they were cut and sprouted again, the animals weren’t able to get their mouths up to the sprouts and just destroy them.
Bill: They would do that in order to make certainly firewood, but also wood for building, also some of the wood was things like chestnut, that you could put in the ground and will not decay. They used it for all of those purposes. And also they learned to make charcoal, and with the charcoal they could make iron, they could make glass, they could make pottery.
The curious thing was, that the more I looked at this, I would go to one place and somebody would say, “Oh, well you’ve been here, but did you know about Japan?” I said, “What?” I ended up traveling around the world learning about these things.
Margaret: Yes. Well, this might sound crazy, but what happened when I started reading “Sprout Lands,” it made me think of stories… And someone asked me what are you reading? And I tried to explain to them what I was reading, and I found myself saying that it made me think of stories of co-evolutionary strategies between plants and animals. Like say, one easy one for people to conjure as like monarch butterflies and milkweed; they’ve evolved together over the millennia for instance. And that there’s these partnerships in a way.
It’s probably not literally that, and I’m probably, a scientist would be not loving what I’m saying. But it was like this millennium-old dance that hopefully both partners benefit. You mean the examples you just gave, and then of course we made shelters to live in, and boats, and the animals you talked about, we could pen them in with the fencing we could make or grow. So many interdependencies on the trees, yes? [Above, the relationship between humans and trees depicted in a Japanese art exhibit.]
Bill: Yes. You’re quite right. When I first started studying this I thought, oh my goodness, that the trees must have been very short-lived. Well no, in fact, pollarded trees are the longest-lived trees now found in Europe, so the oldest trees in Europe are trees that were once pollarded. So not only did the trees live longer, but also because they created this regular succession of younger and slightly older woods, they created a habitat far more diverse than the uncut forests around them, so it was an extremely healthy habitat not only for people there, but for all kinds of plants, and animals, and birds.
It turned out to be, I think you’re quite right, a co-creation of people and trees. I think of it often as like a lichen, because a lichen consists of its fungal partner who gives shelter and structure, and it’s blue-green algae, and other photosynthesizing partners who provide the energy, and it’s very much like that I think. Very much like what you’re saying with a monarch butterfly and the milkweed. It was an interaction together that created… And I often think that if someone were way in outer space, and they were to us as we are to lichens, they might have looked on these forests and recognized them all around the world as a particular thing, and given them a name. [Below, pollarded willows at the Somerset Levels.]
Margaret: Early in the book, the anecdote that you just spoke about briefly, you take us to this particular job, and you’re a very experienced arborist. You’re a person who’s worked with a lot of trees for many years, and you’d been hired to do this… I’ve always said pollard, but pollarding …. 40 young London planetrees outside the Metropolitan Museum, part of this dramatic new landscape. In the anecdote in the book you step back and you let us in on the fact that even though you and your colleagues smile at each other when you’re done, you’re like, “Oh my goodness! Oh my goodness! What if we killed them?” [Laughter.] Right? There’s that hesitation.
Some of the language about pruning… a lot of the people I was taught to garden from 40 years ago or whatever were trained in England, and they used words like coppice or stool, and pollard and whatever, but people today don’t know that. Tell us what the distinction between those techniques is.
Bill: Basically the techniques are one. Coppice is when you cut something all the way to the ground, near to the ground, depending on the species, you may cut it a little closer, or a little farther, and it will sprout again, either from the root collar, or sometimes from roots, and sometimes from both, and sometimes from along the stems as well. When you cut it to the ground, you get back your wood immediately from the ground. It makes it very easy to harvest. The only trouble is that if you have animals in a pasture, when it starts to sprout again, the likelihood is the animals will eat it.
Margaret: [Laughter.] Yes. Tender, young shoots, huh?
Bill: Pollard, pollarding, it can be… I don’t know if there is a correct way to say it.
Margaret: Oh, I have no idea. Yes.
Bill: But, you would make your cuts instead of at the ground, you would let the trunk grow up and either at the trunk or on lateral branches, prune back at about 6 foot. That way when the new sprouts came, they would come at a level where goats, or sheep, or cattle could not reach them and chew the new sprouts. That’s basically the reason for it.
Coppice comes from the old French, to cut. Pollard comes from a word meaning to cut the hair. In the King James version of the Bible, it says, “Priest of God Ezekiel says they’re not supposed to shave their heads or let their hair grow long, but they are supposed to poll their heads,” which meant have haircuts, which is basically what a pollard looks like.
Margaret: Huh. You gave these London plane, these young London planetrees a haircut, a drastic haircut, above goat chewing level, higher up, right, because you were pollarding them. What gave you the misgivings? Was it because there was no 101 rule book that you could refer to, there was no written how-to on this that you could refer to and be sure you had done it right at the right time for this species, and blah, blah, blah?
Bill: Partly, yes. And you know, it’s also, I’ve also wished to have someone, a Neolithic person standing beside me, and I’m sure that I could say to them, “What do I do with this and when do it do it?” And they would tell me without any hesitation, and I would know.
I didn’t have that person, and I had looked all around the United States and couldn’t find anyone to tell me. I got some advice from people in Europe that was good advice, but when you stand there, we still think there’s an analogy between human life and tree life, which there kind of is, but very much isn’t. So we think, oh my god, I’ve taken everything off it, it’s got to die. But trees have never been able to move from one place to another, and so it develops the ability to resprout again and again in order to stay alive.
It’s only now, I’m in my fourth year of cutting these now, and every year, even this year, once again I’m thinking, “Oh my god, this is the time when I’ve killed them all.” But they keep coming back. They’re a lot more faithful in a way then I am because they’re growing in a way is different from the way that human beings grow. So cutting them back wouldn’t have the same effect that it would have if I cut fingers off a hand, for example.
Margaret: And this awareness, this “aha” that they would come back, whether from the low coppicing, especially if animals were hungry, animals were involved, at the higher level with the pollarding, this awareness of primitive man—that unlocked the whole secret of, “Hey, where are we going to get stuff to feed the animals?” and, “Hey, where are we going to get stuff to build the bridge; where are we going to get stuff to burn, and make fire?” I mean, not just found wood, but cultivated wood, right? I mean that was-
Bill: Absolutely, because they realized that they weren’t destroying the trees by cutting them. And again they had to learn, because you can’t do it every year, and expect it to come back because they’ll run out of energy. So you had to learn in each situation what you could and couldn’t do. But if you did it right, you made a perennial way of relating to this woodland that would allow both you and the woodland to thrive.
Margaret: What are some examples of species of trees that are good for the one treatment or the other? Is it always the same that both can be coppiced or pollarded? What are some of the examples?
Bill: Generally speaking, most broadleaf trees can be treated in either way. And if you go to a wonderful old coppice wood at Hatfield Forest in England, you’ll see… I mean, they haven’t been cut in a long time, so now they’re very large, but you’ll see everything from small maturing plants like hazel and hawthorn, to very tall maturing plants like oak and maple, all of which have been cut back to the ground and allowed to sprout again. Many, many species can do it.
Hazel was a very, very important coppice plant, all the way from the Mesolithic forward. It’s a multi-stem plant to start with, and when you cut it, you get back like six for one, so you can make these basically understory forests of hazel, which give you wood for many purposes. Including even young hazel, which they would use as a binder. They would use it to tie things together. But also of course it gave you fruit. By multiplying it, you were multiplying your access to wood, but also your access to a fruit that particularly the Mesolithic Europeans ate as a staple food.
Margaret: Going back sort of to evolution, the evolution of these trees, I was fascinated in “Sprout Lands,” in the book, in one section or another, you talked about how the trees themselves evolved, for instance, to survive damage, or to survive pests or disease or just the presence of other trees in a mixed forest, like how to outcompete, or live together happily. And how they learned to have distinct physical almost strategies: shapes of the tree, leaf types, this ability to resprout. And I think the great innovation that you call dormant buds. Can you tell us a little bit about these magical, this genius the trees have developed as some examples?
Bill: Sure. Let me think. I mean, I was always fascinated by the great tropical botanist Francis Halle, who he and several other great botanists studied the different kinds of forms that trees can take. There are probably three or four trillion trees in the world, and we’re now told we should plant another trillion.
For all of those trees, according to Halle and his companions in working on this, they’re probably only about tw-dozen forms in which they can grow. And those forms are meant, some of them… We commonly think of opposite and alternate as ways that branches sprout, but beyond that, every tree, they argued, seeks first to create it’s ancestral form, which it does as a very young plant, and then by repeating that form in many different ways, it both grows up to its full stature, and then even as it’s growing down, it can repeat that form as a way to grow back upward again, or to maintain its height, or to grow smaller slowly.
A tree can live very, very much longer than we can, and in theory is functionally immortal because it can always resprout these new babies. A conifer is less good at sprouting than a broadleaf plant, but even those on young wood can resprout. And frequently when you see a Chamaecyparis touch the ground, if you leave it there, a new Chamaecyparis will sprout where the stem hit the ground.
Margaret: Like a layer; it’ll layer, sort of?
Bill: Yes, right. Yes, and it just fascinates me. And Halle said.. I got to speak after Halle once. He’s 90-some-odd years old. He gave this wonderful talk, which amounted basically to saying, “O.K., human beings, 78 organs, they never work very well, we die very young. Trees, three organ, roots, stems, and leaves. They live a long time, they grow very tall, and even when they die back, sometimes they can begin again.”
There’s a process called phoenix regeneration, if a tree has grown all the way back down to its base, if there’s a new sprout on that tree, and that sprout can establish its own root system, the tree will go up again.
I saw a beautiful ash tree that had been 90 or 100 feet tall in the Somerset Levels in England. It was now only about 15 feet tall, but two of its stems were putting down their own root system, so in theory in another 100 years we can come back, and it’ll be 90 feet tall. [Above, a fallen osage orange turned two lateral branches into 30-foot trees. The one at the end is now putting down its own roots. When the old tree dies, this tree will carry on, genetically identical. This is called phoenix regeneration.]
Margaret: I think you say in the book that in a leafy forest, 80 percent of the trees are… they’re not seedlings that have been sown, they’re connected right to the roots of another tree.
Bill: Yes. Or, in fact, they may have been seedlings that were chewed down and sprouted again.
Margaret: Oh, O.K.
Bill: Yes. They’re all re-sprouts. That’s Peter Del Tredici, that’s the study of sprouting behavior-
Bill: He estimated that about 80 percent in our standard Eastern forest here, 80 percent of what we see growing is not simply a seedling—certainly it may have once been a seedling, but it was chewed down, or knocked down, or diseased down, at least once or twice, and back it came again. It’s that returning property of trees that makes them so valuable then and also very valuable now, because it’s now that we need to put lots more trees into the land again.
Margaret: Right. This strategic physiological aspect, this thing called lignotubers, can you explain that, because that was a word I’d never heard?
Bill: Either had I, until I was asking about why my basswoods, why my lindens were all resprouting from the base. I think it might have been Peter who said, “Well it’s the lignotuber.” I said, “The what?”
Bill: He said, “The lignotuber.” Apparently many, many tropical trees have this organ at the base of them, which allows… basically it permanently creates new dormant buds all the time. Most broadleaf trees will do that for 30 to 50 years, but beyond that, no. But if you have a lignotuber, you can do it forever, which is why you’ll often see if you’re walking in the woods in the East here, and you see a basswood tree, you’ll often see a basswood tree that’s a fairy ring. You’ll see like six trees around an empty space in the middle. Those are all sprouts that came from the lignotuber.
Bill: And likewise, redwood had a lignotuber. Hundreds-year-old redwood trees that are huge can sprout all around the edge and make these fairy rings, some of which now when you come to see are trees… contain five or six trees that are 100, 150 feet tall, all coming from that organ.
Margaret: At the New York Botanical Garden, you teach pruning—is it to the professional gardening students?
Bill: Yes. I’ll teach it to anybody who’ll listen. Professional gardening students, and also adult ed.
Margaret: [Laughter.] Adult-ed as well. I think in the book you mentioned you have a mantra that you tell your pruning class students at the start of the curriculum. Can you share that with us?
Bill: Oh yes, there’s only three things that a tree can do when a stem is damaged. It can sprout from dormant buds. It can create new buds and stems from scratch out of the cambium. Or it can adapt the existing branches to take over the role of the branches that had been damaged or destroyed. Those are the only three things.
Margaret: I think in the book you not so… a little sarcastically, darkly humorously said, “Of course you forgot to mention it could also die.” [Laughter.]
Bill: Yes, because when I was sitting there looking at the new pollarded London planes, and I was afraid I had killed them all, I said, “That’s what I tell my students every year, but there’s a fourth possibility, they can die.”
Margaret: Yes. Yes.
Bill: Because I was afraid it happened.
Margaret: Although toward the end of the book you quote someone named Neville Fay, I think. You say, “It’s reassuring to think when you’re pruning trees severely,” as we were just talking about, that he says, it’s a he, yes? Neville Fay?
Margaret: He says, “Trees have a tendency toward immortality,” which you were mentioning before as well. That is a reassuring thought, certainly.
Bill: Yes. I absolutely love that. And Neville is a great, great arborist and tree person in England. He’s absolutely right. I mean, there is a clonal shrub in Tasmania that is at least 42,000 years old. And there are a number of plants… there are great claims for the age of the clone of aspen in Southern Utah that’s called Pando. There’s some who think it may be as old as a million years old. I don’t think anyone’s been able to reliably tell that, but you can see if you are a clonal grower, that is you sprout up again and again from the same rootstock, in theory there’s no reason you should ever stop.
Margaret: There were so many little discoveries in the book besides the big story. And speaking of language, we talked about some language about trees, and about pruning particularly that aren’t so familiar anymore. But there are expressions like the expression, “Handle it,” that you mentioned in the book, that’s an everyday expression. “You can handle it; handle it.” That has to do with trees also, and yet we don’t even know that it has to do with trees. Can you explain that?
Bill: Yes, it has to do with trees in two ways. It has to do with making an ax. You could buy, up until the end of the second World War, when you went out to buy an ax, you bought the ax head, and then you had to put a handle on it. I think in the interwar period, you could buy the handles, and then just fit them. But many people before that time would simply make the handle, and then fit it to the ax. So can you handle it literally meant, can you make a handle that would create an ax that you could use? And then you can use that ax for cutting more wood. I just loved finding that out.
It was interesting that when we were doing this, I was doing this with my son. I had got a beautiful new ax, a handmade ax from a maker, named Jauregi in Northern Spain, and I was sharpening it for the first time, and we went out, and I have an old farmhouse upstate. We went out into this table, and we wanted to set it in a place so we could easily hold it in place and sharpen it.
And there was this thing that I never understood there that looked like a vise, but didn’t quite work like one. We tried to put it in that, and it fell over right on to a little knob sticking out of the table, and we realized that that entire device had been made with the purpose of sharpening axes, because the handle rested right on it, and the ax head was waiting right there for us to sharpen it.
There’s a lot of knowledge of that kind that has been lost. If you look all the way back to Indo-European, they theorize now that the word for tree and the word for to cut, varna, were the same word. So tree and to cut seemed to have been associated way, way, way back into Indo European language.
Margaret: We have certainly a profound and long relationship with the trees. And that’s, again, why it just gave me chills. “Sprout Lands” is the new book, “Sprout Lands: Tending the Endless Gift of Trees,” by William Bryant Logan. I just loved it. I’ve given it as a gift already to a number of people I will tell you, and we’re all chattering about it. Thank you so much! This is a massive work you’ve created.
Bill: Thank you so much. I really enjoy doing it, and it’s wonderful to hear that people are reading it because I think we… It’s time for us to remember this and try, we may not cut trees the same way again, but we have to return to this way of grateful exchange with the world around us-
Margaret: And intimacy.
(All photos from William Bryant Logan.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 10th year in March 2019. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 20, 2019 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).