Trees That Love Chainsaws

by M.J. Harvey – March, 2001


Let me set the scene:  Years ago someone, possibly you, planted the cutest little holly bush next to the door, or possibly in front of the window.

Fast forward to today:  There is a big, black, hulking monster darkening the room, blocking the path and attacking visitors.  This holly has the Darth Vader syndrome.


Usual remedy:  Call in a contractor to cut it down, dig out the stump and haul away the branches.  Possible cost:  In the hundreds of dollars.


There is an alternative which you can do yourself with the aid of leather gloves, long loppers and a saw.  What you do is to cut off all the branches leaving just stubs from six inches to a few feet sticking out from the main trunk.  Then cut off the top of the bush at the height you would like.  The result is a leafless horror.  You tremble in fear of a visit from the militant Victoria chapter of the SPCP.  But do not fear.  Holly is one of those plants which have the ability to sprout from old bark.  During the next growing season the stubs will sprout healthy shoots covered in leaves and in the second year you will have the perfect downsized tree.  Everyone will admire your skill.


Don’t believe this?  Go to Fred Galle’s book Hollies – The Genus Ilex.  It is in the library.  Open it to colour plates 207-209.  These show in succession an example of an overly large tree; the immediate result of hatracking; and a year later.  You’ll be surprised.  This book is incidentally a wonderful reference published by Timber Press 1997 and sponsored by the Holly society of America.  Borrow it and dip into it – it is too large to actually ‘read’.


For instance did you know that the dried leaves of South American Ilex paraguayensis are the yerba mate which is brewed into a tea?  Or that in North America aboriginal males would ceremonially drink the tea of I. vomitoria, with the bravest one the one who did not throw up?  Or that the English would boil the bark of English holly to make birdlime which was a great benefit since it enabled poor people who could not possess a shotgun to have a nice sparrow pie?  (For recipes see Calvin W. Schwabe – Unmentionable Cuisine, p 245)  So what else bark sprouts?  Think Australia – a dry continent dominated by Eucalyptus trees.  The several hundred species of Eucalyptus are mostly adapted to bush fires which race through the groves.  Being full of terpenes the leaves burn off spectacularly but after a fire the charred branches rapidly sprout new shoots.


Several gum trees, as they are called, will grow vigorously in open, dry sites in Victoria.  The best species are the snow gums, E. pauciflora ssp niphophila and ssp debeuzevillei (Jounama snow gum).  These have glorious grey-white trunks with the bark shed in irregular patches.  Another favourite is the silver dollar E. perriniana with its circular juvenile leaves clasping the stems.  They are favourites for flower arrangements.  Never plant E. gunii. The bark is dull and shaggy without the decorative appearance of the snow gums.  Mine grew to 20 feet in 9 years from a 12 inch seedling before I made fire logs from it.


It was Ted Irving who looked at my little gum and suggested I cut it off at ten feet.  I was rather surprised it had grown at all and thought he was crazy to suggest topping it.  Then the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific lopped off their huge snow gum in a most brutal fashion.  It was crudely devastated.  But by the end of the year it had long shoots covered in leaves and looked glorious – and smaller.


The silver dollar gum has to be cut down severely every year or two to keep it producing the rounded juvenile leaves.  Otherwise it switches to the elongated adult form of leaf.  Fig tree too big, can’t reach the fruit?  Just cut it down to a metre or two.


OK now, chainsaws at the ready!


PS  My wife complains that if anything grows well, I chop it down.  That I only seem to like plants that do not grow.  Should I go to see a phytoanalyst?