By Tim Clancy, for Let’s Talk Plants! September 2023.
Coppice - The Woodland Husbandry Technique Also Called Resprout Silviculture
Most of us are familiar with using trees for various human functions. They are the biggest organisms on earth. In their most popular situations trees are used to decorate our surroundings, be it our parks, cities or even our own properties. Then of course there are all sorts of other uses from the obvious telephone poles to the not so obvious X, Y or Z.
Not so long ago an interesting treatment of trees was to “coppice” with the end product being used for various important purposes. Some of those are firewood, feed for livestock, fences, etc.
Coppicing terms include; Stool–stumps (According to Disease In Plants, by H. Marshall Ward, “When a tree is felled, the stump may, if the section is close to the ground and kept moist, begin to form a thick rim-like callus round the wood…”), copse (which is a grove of coppiced trees) and the tool used to harvest our crop is referred to as a “billhook.”
Coppicing is not another form of pollarding even though the two are similar in how they are carried out. Pollarding typically takes place on a main stem a few feet or more off the ground while coppice is based on stumps and regrowth from same.
Over the years I have watched unintended coppice at work mostly in commercial settings where a company will year after year remove stump sprouts while leaving the stump. I suppose if it were for aesthetic reasons it would be fine but I don’t get that feeling. Of course, removing the stump is a one-time fee so why do that when you can charge to remove “stump sprouts” annually?
Not long ago Cal Trans pruned some Tipu trees to ground level near where I live. I was baffled by this as I could see no reason for removal. They left the stumps. The stumps promptly started to regrow and much to my delight looked very much like long managed coppice trees. Then not long after that, since they are not being “managed” as coppice, they started to grow back into the trees that were removed. I’ll be watching.
While we don’t have much use for coppice products nowadays, in the past Native Americans in California and elsewhere had many ingenious uses for coppice wood. Some of these were to make arrows for hunting, traps, games, instruments and utensils.
Several species proved popular for coppice such as willows, alders, serviceberry and many others. Seventy-eight different species from 36 different families were used in basketry in California.
A Western Mono cradleboard required between 500 and 700 straight sourberry sticks to construct and a large basket as many as 1,200. Clearly coppice management was a sophisticated process requiring an understating of how trees grow when treated in certain ways.
Coppicing is also called “resprout silviculture” and it is practiced in many European countries to this day. France, Italy, Bulgaria and Greece all have more than one million hectares in coppice cultivation as of this writing.
Coppicing still has its place as farmers grow feed and fuel, basket makers create their own supply of raw material, nursery growers produce products for the cut flower trade, researchers looking for all sorts of answers to all sorts of questions.
I for one would like to see a coppice demonstration garden somewhere in San Diego. This would be a great way to learn about trees and some of their uses.