Monday, 26 April 2021

Curly Willow: how to reduce it

 I had an interesting question the other day: Fiona asked me about her Curly Willow (Salix matsudana 'Tortuosa') or Corkscrew willow,  which has a few dead branches on it.

 Fiona is concerned about the dead branches, but is also concerned about having it pruned, and said it "hasn’t been pruned for a few years after our neighbours described the last guys who did it as ‘cowboys’."  

Here's what it looks like:

It's getting quite big, for a tree which is relatively close to houses, although it gives lovely dappled shade, as well as privacy.

What's interesting about this tree, to me (before I get on to Fiona's questions), is the way it branches just a couple of feet off the ground.

You can see that it starts off as one trunk, like a normal tree: then - at about knee height - it suddenly turns into a multi-stemmed tree.

There seems to be a sack of something lying across the base of the tree, not sure what that is... but you can see that there is one original clear stem, then it suddenly changes, into something with several upright stems.

Here - right - is the closer view of that part of the trunk, and can you see how it has split into two massive trunks, plus at least two or three smaller ones?

Actually, I shouldn't use the word "split" because it hasn't split at all. There are two possibilities here.

1) it was originally a grafted tree. That means that the upper, curly, branches were joined onto a non-curly rootstock. This is a bit unlikely, at that height: this tree is not normally grafted anyway, because it is as vigorous as any other Willow, and doesn't need to be cosseted by being grafted onto a different rootstock.

Furthermore, trees are normally grafted a lot higher than 2' off the ground. However, it is a possibility.

More likely, though, is:

2) the 'cowboys' of a few years back, have just chopped it straight across, and all those new trunks have sprouted from the cut.

This is what willows do.

When you prune them, they say to themselves "'Ere, someone's chopped me top orf: I am therefore obliged to put on an extra spurt of energy, to replace them bits wot they chopped orf."

As Enid Blyton put it, rather more elegantly, "willows are full of life, and you can't stamp it out of them." 

That's from The Secret Island, by the way, and is what Jack said, when the children were building Willow House. 

It is possible that the tree was damaged, so they cut it back for safety: it is possible that the previous owners said "Blimey, that's too big a tree to have near the house, get rid of it," and the 'cowboys', not knowing any better, took a chainsaw to it, assuming that the stump would die.

Whatever the reason, the willow was reduced to a stump, whereupon it started to grow, grow, GROW!

In no time it had put up four or five new stems, from that stump, and with no further interference, each of them thickened up into the mighty stems we see before us.

In effect, the tree was coppiced: just once. Then left to get on with it. Which it did.

So, whichever of these options caused the shaping, what can Fiona do about her dead branches, and are they a sign of the tree dying?

Firstly, it's definitely a good idea to get dead branches removed: quite apart from the risk of them eventually dropping down and hitting you on the head, a dead branch will just rot, and in doing so, the rot might spread to other branches. Plus, if it is a branch which has broken - and therefore died - but which is still attached to the tree, then when it does eventually fall, it might damage the bark even further. Like when you damage a fingernail - if you don't cut it off neatly, it might catch on something, then rip across, doing worse damage than if you'd cut it.

Secondly, no, it's not a sign of the tree dying: all trees lose the occasional upper branch, it's part of their natural cycle, and if you walk around your local woodland areas, you will find that virtually every deciduous tree has a small pile of dead branches lying around underneath it. Willows are super-tough trees, and it would take a lot to kill one.

However, in a garden, the dead branches do need to be sorted out, and I'd certainly suggest getting in a tree surgeon, or "arborist" as they now call themselves...

.... as an aside, if I were in a profession which is basically using power tools (ie you need training, and it's bloody dangerous, so due respect to them, but it's not exactly over-technical) to prune trees (of which there are only a couple of dozen commonly-found species, not exactly a lot of work to learn all about those few, compared to the thousands of garden herbaceous, shrubs, bulbs, climbers, etc that we Gardeners have to learn) - and I'd found that that profession had claimed the word "surgeon" and successfully worked that word into their job title, with no resistance from the paying public at all... well, it would take an atom bomb to get me to change it to the rather stupid word "arborist" which is meaningless to 99% of the public, as opposed to the 100% who know what a "surgeon" is......

Anyway, leaving that aside, the trick to finding a good arborist is to a) ask for local recommendations: but not "are you an arborist who is recommending themself",  but "have you used an arborist lately, and would you recommend them?".

If you don't know enough people to ask for recommendations, and/or you don't have a local community website or community social media page, then look around on the internet for arborists, phone them up, and ask them what qualifications they have (LANTRA is the accepted one), how long they've been operating (if less than five years, give them a miss: yes, we all have to learn, but do you really want them learning on your precious tree?), are they insured (if not, scream and run away), what do they do with the waste material, and - most importantly - how soon can they do it. If they say they can come and look at it now, and can do it next week, scream and run away! A good arborist will be booked up for weeks ahead, if not months.

As a general observation, for the benefit of anyone else with a similar tree, pruning the upper part of the tree depends on whether you want to reduce the height, or reduce the density, or both.

Actually, I'm leading you astray again, because regardless of whether you want to reduce the height, or the density, or both, I'd say the same thing: take out one or more of those main stems, rather than trying to reduce every single branch.

Thus, in a couple of years, you'll be back to where you are now.

If you chop "all" the stems at the same height, it will ruin the shape, or "form" of the tree: in fact, it will turn it into a pollarded tree. If you're not sure what that means, type "pollard" into the search box, top left of the screen, and read all about it!

In nearly all cases, I would far rather remove one of more entire stems, then allow it to regrow into a natural "form", than to give it a massive chop and wait for it to regrow.

It does rather look as though this particular tree has already been "semi-pollarded"  once before, at a height of about 8' from the ground: just about 2' above fence height, you can see that the two major stems each have a thick knobbly bit, with a multitude of smaller stems growing out from that point.

The good news is that Willows can take almost any amount of "butchering", by cowboys or by inadvertent damage. Cut stems will sprout new branches, and all of them will be curly and corkscrew-y,

To summarise: Fiona's questions were, are the dead black stems a sign of something terminal: answer, probably not, all trees lose the odd branch here and there. Also, how to go about finding a non-cowboy to deal with it - see advice, above.  

And as for frequency of pruning: I know this sounds a bit facetious, but the true answer is "when it starts to look too big/look top heavy/become an annoyance/no longer brings you joy" (as Marie Kondo would say!). There is no hard and fast rule about when to prune: it depends so much on how fast it grows, where it is, and so on.

So, I hope that helps!



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