Tree Talk: The not-so-fine (and sometimes accidental) art of coppicing
Nature can be a happy joker, a purveyor of fantasy, a master of serendipity.
It’s the acorn that the squirrel buried in the far corner of your garden that you didn’t bother to take out and is now your favorite shade tree. It’s feverfew, verbena or verbascum the wind, or maybe a bird, seeded in your perennial border, filling with lacy foliage and sprays of flowers or soaring to become a visual anchor in bed. Pair these gifts with a bit of gardening skills (pruning, grooming, fertilizing), and you’ll likely end up with something even the most accomplished person couldn’t conceive of.
There are examples of this phenomenon in Madison Park. As you stroll through our village, your gaze might be caught by a beautiful tropical looking plant on the southeast corner of HomeStreet Bank at 4036 E. Madison St.
You are looking at the juvenile deciduous foliage of Paulowinia tomentosa, the empress tree.
Several years ago, a seed from a mature flowering tree was dropped between the foundation of the building and the sidewalk of the parking lot. It sprouted, sprouted and came back up with the characteristic vigor of this genre. For some reason (I like to think it was intentional) the maintenance staff or management left it in place.
When fall came and it was defoliated, it was cut back to the ground, only to leave the roots in place so this sturdy plant could grow and leaf the following year … as it did. for several growing seasons since.
This is where the fantasy lies, the serendipity. Whether intentionally or not, the technique used here was that of coppicing. It is the practice of cutting a plant, almost to the ground, every year or perhaps every two or three years, so that a bountiful harvest of new shoots springs from the roots. The system predates written history. Willows, lime trees, beeches, birches and more were among the many trees pruned for flexible new growth. The most recent and the smallest in diameter were used in basketry. The 2-3 year old shoots can be used to shape wheel spokes or make fences. The uses for these long straight switches were endless.
In 1544, Henry VIII regulated the practice of coppicing by statute, requiring that the woods be closed after cutting (to prevent animals from “grazing”). The edict also stipulated that 12 trees, per acre, were to be left uncut to be grown as timber. In the 16th and 17th centuries, coppice branches were produced to make charcoal for use in iron production. In the 19th century, coppicing was used for the management of hedges and for ornamental gardens, red dogwood and yellow dogwood being the best examples.
Enter the Empress Tree. Since its introduction into British horticulture, it has been cultivated for its magnificent blooms: fragrant, erect clusters of 2-inch trumpet-shaped flowers in lilac blue. It is a true flowery spectacle. It should be noted here that the pods that form are also very beautiful and prized for use in dried arrangements.
At one point, a Paulowinia was cut to the ground. The following spring, growth stems bore gigantic, tropical-looking juvenile leaves, many of which were 2 feet in diameter. Suddenly, English borders and island beds were punctuated with these dramatic displays of seasonal foliage, while other plants were left to mature to become trees and flower.
In the early 1800s, the tree was introduced to American horticulture. At that time, the gardens of the Domaine de l’Est grew plants for flowering trees as well as coppice foliage. Then it moved northwest.
There is a mature, profusely flowering tree growing on the south side of Madison Park Tennis Club, near the foot of the outdoor public stairs down the slope to the lake. I strongly suspect that this is the source of the seed that spawned the HomeStreet Bank plant. There is also a thicket of Paulownia growing on top of a stone wall on the west side of McGilvra Boulevard in block 1000, where the sidewalk meets the exterior stairs leading down. I also suspect it is a volunteer, probably a relative of the tree south of the tennis club.
The unintentional planting and, I guess, the accidental coppicing of Paulownia at HomeStreet Bank has left our small community with yet another example of the beauty of nature. Imagine how barren this part of the Madison Park business district would be without it. In addition to its great decorative value, it represents human appreciation of nature and a desire to cultivate it. Well done!
Any gardener wishing to grow an empress tree, allow it to become a flowering festival, or coppice for its spectacular juvenile foliage, will have no trouble finding a plant in most nurseries or online. The species loves our loose, rich and acidic soil. It will grow to 40 to 50 feet in height and bears masses of flowers. She is perfectly happy in our mild climate and will grow with Jack-in-the-beanstalk zeal.
The wood is soft and light, but, as it dries during cutting and milling, the wood hardens. It is used in the construction of Tansu chests and other traditional Asian furniture. It is said that in parts of China, Japan and Korea, a Paulownia tree is planted when a baby girl is born. So the father can harvest the tree as she prepares to get married and make him a chest to take to his new home.
So if you fancy a little whimsy, if you’re feeling like a prankster, or just need an old-fashioned backyard theater (or even planning a new girl’s future) , go to the Empress.
She will gracefully and effortlessly grant your wish.