(Or, A Brief Illustrated History of Pruning)1

According to legend, a donkey introduced the practice of pruning to humans. When the donkey nibbled on a wild grape vine2 the villagers noticed that the vine produced more grapes. This origin myth is variously attributed to a donkey in Neolithic Palestine and to Saint Vincent’s donkey in 3rd century Spain.

The date of the earliest wine cultivation is placed at c. 6000 BCE in the Caucasus. One characteristic of this era is the use of polished or ground stone tools, including the ax and the adze. The early stone tools enabled man to clear forests on a large scale for settlements and farming, and they enabled men to prune their vineyards. Pollarding and coppicing trees had already been practiced for thousands of years, and have helped humans survive from the end of the last Ice Age to the Industrial Revolution.

The true saw, a blade with teeth, was a completely new tool and one of the first great innovations of the Bronze Age (c. 3300 – 1200 BCE). The saw was able to cut through wood instead of merely gashing the surface. Egyptian illustrations from about 1500 BCE onward show the saw being used to rip boards.

The bronze saw shown here was found by Harriet Boyd Hawes at Gournia by an expedition sponsored by the Free Museum of Science and Art (now the University Musuem of the University of Pennsylvania).

The advent of the iron age (c.1200 BCE) allowed the development of larger and stronger tools. The origins of the billhook, a pruning tool still in use today, probably lie in the pruning hooks used in the gardens and vineyards of the Assyrians in ancient Mesopotamia. By the time of the Roman invasions of Britain (c. 50 AD) billhooks were in common use through Western and Central Europe, as both a tool and as a weapon.

The frescoed wall below, one of four such walls which comprised a room, is from ancient Rome. At least twenty-four species of plants have been identified in the room, which includes both fruit trees and shade trees. The fruit trees are carefully pruned for production, while the shade trees are shaped for amenity. (See notes on Livia’s Triclinium, bottom of page.)

Peinture murale, époque d’Auguste. Jardin avec arbres fruitiers, fleurs et oiseaux. Détail de la fresque de la salle des jardins de la Villa Livia près de Prima Porta. Dimensions d’ensemble, H. 11,7 ; L. 2,72 Rome, Museo Nazionale Romano delle Terme.

The Roman author Cato describes in detail four different kinds of billhooks: 1/ those for use in a vineyard, 2/ those for cutting rushes, 3/ those for cutting briars, and 4/ those for pruning trees. The man in the foreground of the image below wields an axe; the second man uses a billhook and the third man uses a pruning hook.

Three men pruning the vineyards, c. 12th century (?)

Propertius, a Roman who lived in the Augustinian era, mentions pollarding. In the image below two men prune grape vines, while a third carries pollards.

From the London Rothschild Hours, Southern Netherlands (?Ghent), c. 1500,
British Library, Medieval Manuscripts Blog

With the fall of the Roman empire (476 AD) tool development was interrupted for hundreds of years.

The end of our forests and the beginning of urban forestry

The forests of Europe and the British Isles were, for the most part, exhausted before the Industrial Revolution in England (c. 1760 -1840). In an effort to protect the existing stands and improve their yields, foresters in Germany, France, and Belgium began an intense discussion on the subject of forest pruning.

The Industrial Revolution moved to North America, which remained densely forested until the second phase of the Industrial Revolution (1850 – 1914). By 1850 over 700 steamboats were operating in American waterways. The boats themselves were built of wood; moreover they consumed vast amounts of fuelwood on a daily basis.

The railroads also consumed an astonishing amount of timber. By the late 1800s railroads accounted for between 20 and 25 percent of U.S. timber consumption and led to the clearing of vast amounts of forestland. The rail system consisted of only 3,000 miles in 1840; by 1910 the miles of railroad tracks leapt to 240,000. Over 15 million acres of forests were cleared just to replace railroad ties in the year 1900 alone.

Americans were exploiting forest resources at a furious pace; it seemed there were so many trees we could never exhaust the supply. As the economy shifted from forest-based to petroleum-based energy, the forest workers began to look for work in the cities. And a few people began to look to the future. The origin of modern tree surgery is attributed to John Davey of Kent, Ohio, who established a landscaping business there in 1880. The corporate headquarters of the Davey Tree Expert Company, which now employs over 8,000 people, sits across the street from the cemetery where John Davey honed his skills 140 years before.

The concept of urban forestry and urban forest management did not emerge until the mid-1960s. The birthplace of the term ‘urban forestry’ was Canada and it first appeared in 1965 as a title for a graduate study on the success and failures of municipal tree planting in Metropolitan Toronto.

As the concept of urban forestry took hold, three linked events occurred in rapid succession which were to influence the future of the urban forest in unforeseen ways. The first was the development of the gas-powered chain saw which a single man could use.3 The second was the emergence of Alex Shigo, a forest pathologist and researcher who worked for the US Forest Service.

Shigo used the newly invented chainsaw to perform thousands of autopsies on trees by making longitudinal cuts along the stem, rather than transverse cuts. His research led to groundbreaking discoveries, among them the CODIT theory (Compartmentalization of Decay In Trees). Instead of healing, as many people still believe, trees respond to wounds by sealing the wounded area off. Shigo also invented the 3-cut method of pruning, which is accepted as standard practice.

The third event was the reorganization of the Connecticut Tree Protective Association. The association had originally formed in 1924 and conducted an annual ‘National Shade Tree Conference” until its reorganization as a trade association in 1976. The new corporation, now named The International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), changed their form of leadership to a Corporate Board of Directors in 1985, and in 1992 the ISA launched an unprecedented program of arborist certification.4


For at least eight thousand years, from the Neolithic era to the modern era, man has been pruning. Hugh Morris identifies five different land-based sciences, each with their own approach to pruning: pomology, agriculture, horticulture, forestry, and aboriculture.

Unfortunately practitioners, both amateurs and professionals, have increasingly applied their techniques from one discipline to that of another, indiscriminately. According to Alex Shigo,

“. . . . . The tree care practices that were developed centuries ago have changed little over the years . . . While such practices as topping were eminently practical in agriculture and some forestry applications, they have no place in cultivation for amenity and scientific ends. However, we have carried past practices through time and across disciplines. For instance, when forestry on large scale declined, foresters turned to urban tree management for employment and carried their practices over to arboriculture.”


We are indebted to Bob Burgess of Warminster, UK. His authoritative website on early edge tools is not only endlessly informative but hugely entertaining. See

Tree Pruning: A Short History, by Hugh Morris (University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, Austria).

Tree Pruning: A Modern Approach, by Hugh Morris (University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna, Austria).

Fueling the Fires of Industrialization, Forest History Society

Wood in the Middle Ages, RISD Museum

Sprout Lands: Tending the Endless Gift of Trees, by William Bryant Logan


  1. For each of the subjects we’ve mentioned there are dozens of scholarly sources available. This page is intended as a brief summary.
  2. Phylogeographical structure and conservation genetics of wild grapevine, Fabrizio Grassi et al; December 2006 Conservation Genetics 7(6):837-845. (See distribution map of Vitis vinifera)
  3. The History of the Chainsaw, Swiss Federal Research Institute
  4. The ISA now has an operating budget of approx. ten million dollars annually and has nearly 38,000 certified arborists operating in North America. The corporation recorded an increase of 15% in net sales of their products (publications, courses, memberships, certifications, etc.) in the recent annual report. (ISA Annual Report) According to the most recent information available (2018) the Executive Director, Caitlyn Pollihan, received compensation of $174,795. The former Executive Director received over $200,000 in his final year. (ProPublica NonProfit Explorer)


There are dozens of scholarly sources on this subject. We are indebted to Beverly Hall Smith for her article Livia’s Garden (The Chestertown Spy, July 15, 2021).

The Alimentarium, an educational museum in Vevey, Switzerland, focuses on gastronomy, ethics, and ecology. Their article on The History of Arboriculture (which is equated here with fruit trees) includes useful information on the introduction of new foods through conquest, migration, and exchanges between civilizations. Some of the fruits depicted on these walls were introduced to Europe following Alexander’s invasion of the far East in 334 B.C.E.

The four frescoed walls were removed intact from the subterranean dining room of Livia, the wife of Emperor Augustus (27 BC to AD 14 ). In the summer months Livia and her guests escaped to this perpetual garden to avoid the searing heat. For those of us who watched “I, Claudius” on Masterpiece Theater (1976), Livia is an indelible character who murders one emperor (her husband Augustus) to install her son as the next emperor.

Tree People were among the first to enter this room when it went on display in the year 2000 in Naples. We are daily reminded of the visit by prints of two of the four walls hanging in our library at home.

This is the one of four current pages on pruning. The entire set consists of the following pages:

1/ The History of Pruning,

2/ Hatracking

3/ Apples and Oaks

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