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The Trees that Disturbed Me

When we moved to the South of France, I was prepared for differences in the language, the money, fashion, traffic regulations.... But I never dreamed how much I would be affected by the trees.

One downright disturbed me: Platanus, the plane tree, a relative of the sycamore. The problem was the way it was always pruned: drastically. Every winter—or at the most, two—they cut all the branches off the tree! (Usually before they dropped their leaves, killing two birds with one stone.)

I winced to see the naked, stumpy arms of the trunks in winter, with their knobby, calloused-over ends from being cut in the same place for years. But I was told it's the law: you must not let any tree get higher than a certain limit; it's considered dangerous, a risk from falling branches, a nuisance.

After cringing through my first winter, I noticed that in spring the stumps produced very regular, extra-dense globes of leaf-bearing branches, at precisely the same height because they'd been chopped off at the same height. I caught myself seeing rows of these, marching down the streetsides, as stately living sculptures. But it was in summer I finally appreciated that density: in the shade it gave.

Especially when they were pruned with longer branches growing in one direction, so that the leaf-bearing mass leaned in that direction—for example out over the center of a boulevard, or over a terrace to shade it from the summer sun.

This kind of pruning—called pollarding—requires very careful technique. A few examples: the tree must be first cut back at exactly the right age, the pruning must continue regularly, and cuts must be done each time at exactly the same locations, so new growth doesn't weaken the structure. In the US the method is almost unknown (except for an occasional Camperdown elm—more on that later), and most people equate pollarding with "topping"—taking down the top of a mature tree, a very destructive practice.

When I returned to the US, I'd grown used to parking lots designed with regular rows of plane trees trained to reach out and shade the spaces between, where the cars sat. Coming back to having my car bake in the summer sun, so that oven heat blasted me when I got in ... now I missed the European art of drastically pruned trees.

© Copyright 2004 Catherine Holmes Clark

These are Camperdown elms, which have a weeping habit, so the ends are more sheltered than in the parking lots I remember with plane trees pollarded. But otherwise a very similar effect. Photo courtesy of the Albert Leemreize Nursery, in Rurrlo, Netherlands.

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 5 March 2004

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