Willow Pollards

Feb 09, 2019

The ancient tradition of pollarding willows is still alive on the Somerset Levels near Bristol in western England. It is a landscape full of stunning ancient pollards, but there are farmers who still regularly cut their willows, using the sprouts for hurdles, wattle fencing and baskets.

All along the watersides in this part of the levels grow willows of many sizes, cut in many different ways. Some are like shocks of hair, others like a sack thrown over the trunk’s back, and some like rows of Corinthian columns. 

The fresh-cut stems in late winter shine like small golden coins. Arborists call the cuts cookies”. A pollard head develops at the end of a large cut branch. There, the plant gathers large stores of starch and countless dormant buds. When the old sprouts are cut, new ones replace them in the same year. On a vigorous willow five to eight feet of growh in a year is not uncommon.

Vincent Van Gogh was a devotee of pollard willows. He painted and drew them many times. They give to the landscape a sense of character, of place, that responds to the shapes of the trees. 

Over time, a head may decay, but willows are not too concerned about their longevity. Wherever a stem falls, it is likely to root. Willow branches that floats along a stream often root in the bank on which they lodge. That is why the tree can colonize a whole drainage. 

A thick shock of willow
Trees near the farmer’s house are made for use, but also beautiful, especially when reflected in the still water.