Home & Garden Columns

Creative Pruning Produces Some Bizarre Results

By RON SULLIVAN Special to the Planet
Tuesday April 04, 2006

There sure are some funny-looking trees in this town. Some of them are the results of whimsical pruning—there’s a big cedar in my general neighborhood, a traffic accident in waiting because I can’t be the only person who reflexively eases up on the gas p edal to stare when passing it. 

It’s completely sheared into poodle balls, little bluish pompoms, shaggy in some seasons, on the ends of long bare upcurved branches. It’s been maintained that way for years, and it’s tall enough that this must take a ladder and lots of labor.  

Some poodle-balled trees (yes arborists really call them that, and it’s not something a veterinarian can fix) seem to be a sort of Japanese-style pruning gone off in odd directions. Classical Japanese pruning includes some shearing, especially of shrubs, into the smooth-contoured “cloud form.” 

Here, I’m not sure whether someone liked the look and applied it to any old species, or lots of people didn’t quite get it and sheared things into shapes that reminded them vaguely of what th ey’d seen in Japan, or in picture books.  

You see lots of junipers done up into green pads on racks, and they’re tough enough to take it. But a Japanese maple I knew had been sheared into a perfect globe. I started a long reshaping process; when I took m y first whacks at it, I found lots of dead twigs and branches, deprived of light and air circulation inside that mass. Lots of plant-eating bugs, too, and mildewed leaves. 

There are species—mostly shrubs like boxwood but a few trees like Syzygium panicul atum (eugenia or lilly pilly)—that tolerate shearing, so they’re used for topiary. There’s a eugenia in San Lorenzo shaped into a sort of bas-relief kangaroo, against a house wall, and I’m told there’s a lot of it done up as topiary in Disneyland. 

Another technique that turns out weird-looking trees is pollarding. Some of the planetrees on the UC campus, for example the rows just inside Sather Gate, are pollarded. Planetrees and sycamores in general seem not to mind this, and if it’s done right it doesn’t hurt the tree. (Why am I hearing Marlon Perkins reassuring the TV audience that “this does not hurt the animal” as someone lassoes a hapless antelope?)  

The tree has to be cut repeatedly to exactly the same point, until it forms those odd knobs you see all winter. Then the twigs that shoot out of those knobs must be cut off every fall, and the knobs mustn’t be cut off or into. It’s originally a technique for harvesting firewood while keeping the trees alive, but it turned into a sort of French-aestheti c tradition. It’s also good for fruitless mulberries in hot-summer places where you want summer-only shade.  

Another source of funny trees is PG&E pruning. This is perfectly utilitarian, so to speak—solely for the purpose of keeping utility lines up wher e they belong. It’s merciless to the trees involved, but believe it or not it used to be worse. Sort of.  

Line-clearing pruning crews used to just top a tree—whack it off bluntly, a procedure that usually, gradually, kills the tree. Now, since Alex Shigo introduced his studies to arboriculture, they instead cut limbs down to the place they sprouted off bigger limbs. They call this “drop-crotching.” It’ll still probably kill the tree, but more slowly, and urban trees generally aren’t that long-lived anywa y.  

What you see after this is a Y-shaped tree, another silly shape but one that coaxes the tree to grow away from the lines that run through its middle rather than sending a zillion sprouts straight up into those lines in a year or two.  

A reader asked me if that was a result of trees’ being sensitive to electromagnetic frequencies. You might think so, looking at the trees, but, what being sensitive to EMFs means is that their foliage turn brown foot or two from the line. Those awkward trees you’re seeing are results of line-clearing; they didn’t do that all by themselves.  

Lots of arborists and even PG&E urge people to choose smaller trees to plant under city powerlines in the first place, so they won’t have this problem when the tree reaches mature size. Good idea.  


Photo by Ron Sullivan  

A good example of PG&E pruning: a sycamore "dropcrotched" into a big "Y" shape to clear powerlines above it.›