Ceredwensirius’s recent query on offering tea to a distinguished visiting wizard kept forking into so many threadlets it got hard to keep track. But one threadlet got on to the subject of coppiced and pollarded trees in Epping Forest, and I thought that the magical implications of traditional British woodland management techniques might be worth a thread to themselves.
Epping Forest is notable for a number of strikingly large pollard trees. Pollarding is a medieval technique of tree management, originally evolved to provide animal fodder. The young growth of broadleaved trees makes nourishing food for deer and cattle; the trees know this and put all their early energy into growing a trunk tall enough that these animals can’t reach their young branches which all sprout from its top. But along comes a medieval peasant looking for fodder for his oxen or flexible withies for basketry or hurdle-making; the branches of a young but well established tree are above his head too, but he can just reach them with his long billhook. So; he reaches up with it, lops off all the branches, and drags them off. But the tree doesn’t die; next year it puts out new growth, necessarily from the same place as the previous year’s. It’s out of reach of animals so the new growth flourishes. Two or three years later the peasant passes by again…. Over the years this treatment, applied regularly, creates a very distinctive kind of macro-bonsai shape; a very thick but relatively short trunk and short stubby main branches terminating in knobbly swollen ‘fists’ from which shoots have been repeatedly lopped, each with many thin new shoots sticking stiffly out from them. If you’ve never seen a pollard tree in RL, you’ve seen one in the HP films, because the Whomping Willow as shown there is a classic pollard willow - no willow ever grows like that naturally.
Which raises some interesting issues. Someone on the Hogwarts staff (Professor Sprout? Possibly assisted by Hagrid?) must have pollarded the willow every few years – an extremely dangerous task for an expert and very brave wizard tree surgeon, as being pollarded must enrage the tree to its limits. Why was such an onerous task deemed necessary? Is it possible that it takes regular pollarding to create a Whomping Willow? – i.e. that you take a naturally aggressive species of willow and continually build up its aggression (and also ensure the whippiness of its branches) by pruning it? This would explain why they are so rare and valuable, because the dedication and danger entailed in rearing one is clearly great. Then there’s coppicing. This is a prehistoric method of managing woodland to continually produce useful timbers by cutting down trees for their timber but leaving the stump; new trunks sprout from the stump (known in forestry as a ‘stool’) which are typically nice and straight (after an initial kink where they sprouted from the stool). When they are full-grown, you cut them down and new trunks sprout again. Over generations of this process the stool gets bigger and bigger, growing outwards from the original stump. And the tree doesn’t die of old age, because each time it’s cut it starts again as several saplings. Thus the oldest known tree in the British isles isn’t a majestic oak or yew as you might expect, but a small-leaved lime: a species which you wouldn’t normally expect to live much beyond 100 years. It’s at Westonbirt National Arboretum and is reckoned to be at least 1000 but quite possibly as much as 2000 years old, and still young and healthy. It now has more than 60 trunks: in fact it is now a substantial grove or small wood in itself, and yet it’s all a single biological entity. There’s got to be scope for magical use of that, surely.