Des Trognes – Trees with many faces.

There are many films on YouTube about the process of Pollarding trees, an ancient process going all the way back to Roman times. In this process trees of various species are severely pruned back over many cycles to produce a wild variety of shapes. This process used to produce fodder for cattle, firewood for the hearths of peasant farmers and greatly enriched soils around the trees as well as refuge within them for creatures great and small.

This particular film in French has a spiritual quality about it that we find charming. pl

Or this other version (full length)

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19 Responses to Des Trognes – Trees with many faces.

  1. Pat Lang says:


    The public trees in every French town are all pollarded.

    • Dave Hopkins says:

      Hi Pat, This YouTube video seems to be just a teaser. See Daily Motion for the full video, which is 43 minutes long:
      For me the only downside is I cannot figure out how to add subtitles in Daily Motion. I can read French subtitles and then understand the narration, especially with such a wonderfully clear voice as this narrator has. But in Daily Motion I simply enjoy the beautiful images. Thanks for sharing.

  2. The Twisted Genius says:

    Very interesting video. I wish I understood French. I still have a dim view of the practice pf pollarding, but the film did give me a better appreciation of the practice. Does the film mention what species are treated this way? Some, like hollies, respond well. For others, the shock is too much.

    My younger son and I were just talking about this yesterday. A number of his neighbors have been pollarding their maple trees, sometimes repeatedly. We don’t like it. The pruning of damaged trees to include selective and limited pollarding is sometimes necessary and desired, especially for ornamental specimens. We’ve see ornamental pear trees that have recovered fully. A lot of people do this to crape myrtles. I don’t like that either. The result is always inferior to properly pruned crepe myrtles in their glorious maturity

    I do see the resilience of nature in these pollarded trees. I also see it in stumps with new sprouts which may eventually become trees again. A year and a half ago, I transplanted a small oak sapling from my front yard to the back. I figure it will dominate the yard some day along with my front maple, perhaps long after I’m gone. Last year the deer chewed most of the bark off. They pollarded the hell out of that sapling, but new sprouts appeared in the Spring. It’ll all be part of that tree’s legacy.

    Here’s a story about a Lithuanian full length movie about old forests. There is no narrative, no music and only one man who has a minor appearance in the film. Still, it has become quite popular.

  3. akaPatience says:

    To me, proper pruning is one of the most challenging aspects of horticulture. I’m scared to death to do it on larger specimen and leave it up to my husband, who has stronger opinions about how to go about it correctly. We live in the Central Business District of our town and just trying to maintain healthy trees is problematic enough due to pollution, heat, concrete, etc. There are a couple of large older trees nearby whose fates I worry about, fearing they’ll be topped off or removed. I wish they would’ve undergone pollarding early on when their sizes and shapes could’ve been controlled more effectively.

    New 3″ caliper street trees were planted in front of our building last year which, when a little more mature, may benefit from pollarding. Luckily we don’t have to worry about interference with power lines as they’re all underground here. But big trucks pulling up to the curbs are another matter.

    Thanks for this video. I’m going to forward it to my husband who often communicates with the local urban forester (likely to his chagrin).

  4. Dave Hopkins says:

    Pollarding is usually called coppicing in the permaculture community here in the States. Willow trees were often coppiced for basket and fencing material; rot-resistant locust trees for fence posts and for timberpegs in timberframe construction; thorny trees were coppiced to create living fences and hedgerows for livestock; others for livestock fodder or firewood. It can have a rejuvenating effect on a tree (much as mowing or grazing does on grasses), depending on the tree species and its budding or sprouting habit. A friend nearby (in rural New England) has a side business coppicing Christmas trees. Another friend was supposed to produce a hefty volume on the subject (, but this project seems to have fallen by the wayside.

    • Pat Lang says:

      Dave Hopkins

      Coppicing and pollarding are actually two different things. In pollarding the top of the tree is cut back. In coppicing the tree is cut back to within a foot or so of the ground.

      • Dave Hopkins says:

        You’re absolutely right. Pollarding is done higher to prevent animals from browsing on the new sprouts. Probably more for pasture trees or towns, whereas coppicing is more for forest environments (unless you have a thorny hedgerow). Either process keeps a tree is a perpetually juvenile state and it can live for centuries, even a thousand years, some say; in any case, centuries longer than its unpollarded or uncoppiced relatives. For firewood, no wood splitting, no felling the tree and killing it. And fence posts or tool handles can made cut ready to size.

  5. Leith says:

    Moss and lichens infect most non-evergreens here on the WA coast. When the lichen buildup on the cherry tree gets bad I heavily prune it close to a pollard-like state, maybe every three or four years or so. Ditto with the lilac bushes.

  6. English Outsider says:

    Colonel – English ash takes to coppicing like a duck to water. Oak and most of the rest of them do well too. I’ve never had one fail unless I let livestock in to it too early. I’ve only got one or two conifers. They were put in at a time when rabbits wouldn’t let anything else grow if it wasn’t guarded. I’m told they won’t take coppicing, though there’s a hint from Mr Hopkins above showing different.

    The conifers got too tall and had to be reduced. Those I pollarded and they didn’t even notice. I’ve done that as well to several tall deciduous trees that I wanted to keep but were getting dangerous. The only trouble is that actually doing the job can be risky. I see it done often enough with cherry pickers, but to do it while in the tree itself, with thirty foot or so looming above, is different.

    My solution has been to make two opposing cuts well apart and then haul it down with a rope. That or start from the top and have it down in segments. Since I don’t like taking a chainsaw up – the professionals do often enough but they either have a charmed life or a short one – that gets to be tedious.

    I reckon the same considerations applied in mediaeval times, when pollarding was the norm. So I believe they cut small and often rather than let the tree go tall before they did it.

    We’re losing a lot of Ash now in England. Dieback. And the stumps don’t seem to sprout again. Long ago we lost the elm in most places because of an imported pest. Plenty still around but it doesn’t get to be timber because the pests get it when it’s fifteen or so foot. I don’t have to dispute with the status quo economists to be against globalisation. Just look around at the countryside.

    All this on trees jogged my memory. You had a specimen tree or shrub transplanted a while back. Can’t remember the species but it sounded as if it had been transplanted full grown or nearly so. Is it still surviving? I’ve never done that myself except with small ones.

    • The Twisted Genius says:

      EO, what kind of conifers do you have that responded well to pollarding or heavy pruning? I know my hollies respond well and fill out even better than if left alone. Colorado blue spruce are another story. Minor trimming is fine, but loss of a major branch leads to a dead stump or seriously misshapen regrowth. I do remember the many Norfolk pines growing in Hawaii. One year I climbed high in such a pine and lopped off the top eight feet as a Christmas tree. It was beautiful and the original tree grew back in a year straight as can be.

      I took down a 40+ foot blue spruce last fall with the top down method. I climbed the branches, trimming as I ascended and lopped off manageable chunks of the trunk as I descended. SWMBO was none too pleased when she saw me 40 feet up a tree with a chainsaw at my age. Came through with just a few scratches and in dire need of a shower.

      • English Outsider says:

        TTG, macrocarpa. Cupressus macrocarpa AKA Monterey cypress.

        That one I took down from the top. Big ugly brute. I’m for ever lopping branches from the bottom as well because as they grow out they droop and get in the way. Not brilliant as firewood, unfortunately.

        I find my holly puts up with anything. Only the top grows nice and straight so I fell the whole and take the top bit for a Christmas Tree. I have this notion that we didn’t have modern Christmas Trees until Queen Victoria took a fancy to Prince Albert so they must have used holly in the old days if they used anything.

        So you’ve been doing it like the professionals do it. I watched one at it. He had a little tiny chainsaw that he held very precisely at throat height and a mere foot away from his throat. I asked one of the team “Does he work that close to the blade very often?” “I don’t know. None of us dare look.”

        40 foot? And I’ll bet it was a full sized chainsaw. And I doubt you tied on. Sounds like the sort of outfit where men are men and wives give them a damn good telling off.

        • Pat Lang says:


          What sort of holly? I have a giant American Holly (a male) who looms over my outdoor kitchen. Mine is about 40 feet tall.

          • English Outsider says:

            Colonel – I believe it’s Ilex Aquifolium. It looks like this –


            They say it’s bad luck to cut it. I believe that’s a story made up by people who had to do so when hedging. Its long straggly branches at the bottom make it difficult to get at and cut them with the old hedging implements. And they are too yielding to get an easy cut for trimming.

            I googled Ilex Opaca, if that’s the one, and see it can grow to 50 feet. Presumably it spreads in proportion. The only thing is, Colonel, that at least with the English holly the leaves burn readily even when green.

            burn like wildfire. even when fresh cutfor the

  7. different clue says:

    I watched the long-form film even though I don’t know French because I know nearly nothing of pollarding and hoped to learn something from the visual footage anyway. The film was very artistic in a serious way. If there are other French documentary films this artistic and well done, perhaps there should be a genre-name “French documentary art film”.
    I have read some about coppicing and enjoy thinking about it even though I will likely never be in a position to do any of it. Between that reading and this film I am beginning to think of pollarding as a kind of coppicing-approach but many feet above the ground.
    There are two people who have spent years so far working on a book about coppicing all over the world to come out eventually, if it doesn’t choke on the scale of its own ambition. Meantime, they have a site including a blog in the meantime. A recent entry discussed pollarding more specifically. Here is their site.
    Their blog contains an entry called ” Pollarding physiology and practice update”.
    I read here and elsewhere that proper pollarding can keep a tree almost as “forever young” as coppicing itself can. They say that normal and traditional pollarding exposes heartwood to intrusion of fungus, decay and rot. The first 3 photographs illustrate their point. But a “proper” way to pollard which involves pre-training the tree into shape and then trimming off branch tips too young to have exposable heartwood makes the tree grow club-shaped calluses out of which rotation-cycle trimmable stems and poles may grow and be cut without risking any heartwood rot.
    The 4th photo shows what they mean.
    The film itself showed the two different approaches though since I can’t understand French, I don’t know if this difference was actually understood by the film makers.
    Since You Tube videos have a slider bar at the bottom which lets you see time unfolding along with the film, and You Tube lets you stop the film at any time and write down the timepoint at which the film has been stopped, it is possible to say exactly where in the film certain images may be found.
    At timepoint 01:48 the film shows pre-trained and branch-tip-trimmed trees with callousy clubs on the ends of the branches. At timepoint 01:55 the film shows a tree that was merely beheaded with a wild hairdo of branches coming out of the beheaded top.
    At 04:50 the film shows a sequence of drawings showing the “behead the top” method.
    Then the film shows huge old ” behead the top” pollarded trees rotting, splitting,
    in various picturesque ways.
    Between these images and reading about both coppicing and the possibility of pretraining the chosen tree for pollarding at the selected branch-tips, I wonder whether it would be possible to get pollarded trees with hugely wide trunks without a trace of any rot at all. And if the physiology of the tree under coppice and under pollard is similar, I wonder whether modern ladders or “cherry picker basket lifter” trucks could let us begin pollarding the tree many tens of feet above the ground.
    At 10:51 the film shows a historic photograph of a soldier hiding inside the truly huge rotted out trunk of an old pollarded tree. What if that tree had been pre-trained and then pollarded at the ends of many club-tipped branches? How much wood would that trunk contain if it were made of pristine heartwood untouched by rot, fungus or decay of any sort? What if modern methods of high-up reach allowed someone to start such a tree growing now such that it would have a trunk 10 feet wide and 40 feet tall before the club-tip pollardable branches begin?
    Something happened maybe 150 or so years ago which made people stop maintaining the pollard-trees. Maybe pollarding didn’t pay any more and so the trees were cast aside to drift in a sea of passing time. And now people are revisiting the trees and the concept.
    At 22:34 I heard the words ” Quebec” and “University” and “Lavalle”. And then saw footage of a chipper and cut pollard poles being fed into it and longer-thinner than ” normal” wood chips emerging.
    I think that may have been referring to “ramial wood chips” which were studied at Lavalle University , Quebec. I found a sad little wiki about it but I can’t now find the English translation of the Lavalle University paper I once could find.
    I think this part of the film was telling us that ramial chipped wood is a product which will give new relevance to pollarding for sustainable yield of chippable poles.
    pollarding new releve

    • Pat Lang says:

      different clue
      This film had a very deep effect on me. It id s beautiful, sad but hopeful work that for me epitomizes the French attitude toward life. Perhaps I am exaggerating. I am half French and wish to think well of them.

  8. Deap says:

    Thank you for bringing up this topic – and its treatment as an art form. One of the first things I noticed when f living in Italy back in the 1960’s – driving along the Po River Vally and seeing what we at the time described as property defining “grotesqueries” – gnarled, knobby and top-heavy.

    We started calling them “stick trees” after noticing how they would be trimmed every year for practical benefit. Had no idea it was such a deep continental tradition – an early and ancient “recycling” protect.

    Measuring the seasons with the return of the leafy plane tree canopies in the downtown squares was also a novelty for this previously “season-less” California native here, seeing now how they also benefited from this same intentional pruning technique. It was a beautiful film.

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