Pollarded Willows and the Setting Sun Vincent van Gogh, 1888

Pollarded Willows and the Setting Sun Vincent van Gogh, 1888

What’s Wrong With Those Trees?

Trish Thomas

Trish Thomas

Co-owner of Williamsburg Walking Tours since 2011, she offers guided tours of Williamsburg’s history, the African American experience in Williamsburg, and the Civil War in Williamsburg.

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At the corner of Nassau and Francis Streets stand these stately sycamore trees.  In my opinion they are at their most beautiful in winter, when their bare branches and “knuckles” stand out against the brilliant blue sky. People on my tours often ask, “What’s wrong with those weird trees?”  I love this question because it gives me a chance to talk about an ancient and ingenious technique called pollarding. 

Pollarding is a type of pruning that helps keep trees and shrubs smaller than they would naturally grow.  The technique is sometimes used in modern horticulture to control size or to enhance ornamental effects such as flowering or fruiting.  Pollarding usually takes place when the tree is dormant — most commonly in the winter or early spring.  The trees in Colonial Williamsburg will be pruned sometime in February.  The thin branches harvested have been traditionally used for Colonial Williamsburg’s basket-making demonstrations or in the Custis Garden as border fences.  If the branches are harvested after the trees are fully leafed, they can be used as fodder for CW livestock. The Red Devon cows are quite fond of juicy green leaves. 

Pollarding was used in Europe in the Middle Ages as a woodland management technique.  It has always been a way of using wood from a tree over the course of many years, rather than cutting the tree down and having merely one-time access to the wood. 

So there’s nothing wrong with the trees you see here.  They’re just weird… and pollarded. 

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