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The History of Topiaries

Levens Hall's Elizabethan topiary in 1833
Levens Hall’s Elizabethan topiary in 1833

(Originally published in 1998)

Topiary, the pruning and training of living plants into shapes, is very popular – especially “portable” topiaries grown in pots that may be moved from room to room or from indoors to outdoors with the change of seasons. Particularly when grown in clay pots, they give a “European garden” look to a room and compliment many decorating schemes.The art of topiary has a long and interesting history. The first record of these specially pruned and trained plants comes from the Greeks, although the term is from the Latin, topiarius, translated as “pertaining to ornamental gardening.”

The Greeks designed and built formal buildings, and it was logical that they came to accent the buildings with formally-shaped evergreens. Over time, this evolved into trimming for effect. A Roman, Cneus Matius, got the topiary bug and is credited with interesting Caesar Augustus in topiary. Politics being what they are, soon Rome was awash with evergreens clipped into hedges, animal shapes, and geometrical forms. Although it took 500 years, this probably led to the decline of the Roman Empire, and the Dark Ages.

Since plants need light to survive, not much gardening of any kind occurred in Europe for several hundred years. Charlemagne (800 ad) is said to have revived an interest in the growing of herbs and fruit trees in France. Especially after 1000 ad, the spread of monasteries reintroduced the cultivation of herbs, flowers and shrubs throughout Europe. Also, the beautiful Moorish paradise gardens in Spain and Sicily served as models of gardens for pure enjoyment’s sake.

During the Italian Renaissance, an appreciation for things Roman reemerged, including the use of topiaries. The Italian garden became the basis of European gardens for several hundred years, featuring formal arrangements of clipped herbs and shrubs in geometric patterns, trimmed potted plants and espaliered trees as accents, and mazes. In Islamic and Italian gardens, water features also played a big role.

Baroque gardens in the 1600’s became more and more fantastical, with grottoes, elaborate water features, and heavily trimmed and topiaried shrubbery. Interestingly, boxwood, the mainstay of today’s topiary and knot gardens, was not much used in European gardens before 1600 due to what many perceived as its unpleasant odor. In France, in the mid-1600’s the style became much more flowing, with beds of low, interweaving clipped hedges (often boxwood) in arabesques, an imitation of embroidery (parterre de broderie) at Versailles and other grand gardens. Gardens were crammed full of cone, globe and obelisk-shaped shrubs as focal points and accents.

At this time flowering plants became much more important – at Versailles 1.9 million pots were kept on hand, so that the extensive beds could be replanted overnight to delight Louis XIV the next day.In England, the style of the 16th century was the knot garden, intricate interweaving patterns of thyme, rosemary, germander and other herbs. English yews were also clipped into hedges and mazes. Meanwhile, the Dutch became increasingly interested in gardening. With space at a premium, they stressed small, mathematically precise garden designs, and they were particularly fond of topiary. With their overseas trade, they had access to many new species, and new plants (especially tulips) were worth their weight in gold.Seventeenth century English gardens took on many characteristics of the French style, then the Dutch -with strong geometric patterns, and topiary and statuary accents. The latter is attributed to the influence of King William of Orange, Dutch, who married Queen Mary of England.

At Williamsburg in Virginia, geometric forms of boxwood were made and knot gardens were planted as colonists followed the English/Dutch style.Eventually a back-to-nature reaction arose, beginning in England in the early 1700’s. During the mid-to-late 1700’s, most of the English formal gardens were ripped out and replaced by “natural” landscapes, with lakes, ruins, flowing lawns and clumps of trees. Topiaries were removed or allowed to grow out to their natural forms. But as Michelangelo said (more or less), “the shape is already within the stone, I only reveal it;” it was only a matter or time before topiarists again reared their ugly heads.

Victorian England in the late 1800’s, was a time of great interest in plants. New plants were coming from explorations in China, the rain forests, and the American west. Formal gardens again became the rage with annuals being planted to look like oriental rugs, “carpet bedding” which gives rise to the term “bedding plants.” Perennials, ornamental grasses and big, bold tropical plants were very popular. Topiary animals were used to accent the centers or corners of the beds. Commercial topiary nurseries thrived in Holland and England. European interest in topiary again faded after World War I.

Travellers are fortunate in that so many wonderful gardens around the world can be visited. In the United States, large estate gardens were planted in the early 1900’s. Ladew, north of Baltimore, was purchased in 1931, and Longwood, in Pennsylvania, in 1936. Topiary gardens were started and both remain excellent places to see mature topiary plantings today. Hampton Court Palace (England), Versailles, Villandy with its wonderful vegetable parterres (France), Villa d’ Este (Italy)…Europe is full of gardens representing many styles and eras of gardening, with topiaries well represented.

Extensive plantings at Disney World in Orlando have also interested millions of Americans in the art of topiary.In the 1960’s, coincident with the houseplant craze and environmental movement, American gardeners began experimenting with table-top topiaries and topiaries made on preformed frames. These better fit the budget, space and mobility of the modern gardener, yet give a link to the intimate Renaissance gardens as well as the grand gardens of the past. Excellent specimens of interior framed topiaries are always on display at Longwood Gardens, which has specialized in seasonal topiary displays.

by Larry Hurley

Larry Hurley, perennials specialist for Behnke Nurseries (now retired), started with Behnke’s in1984. Larry enjoys travel, food and photography. He and his wife Carolyn have visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Brazil, South Korea and much of Europe. Their home is on a shady lot where a lot of perennials have met their Maker over the years.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. “Since plants need light to survive, not much gardening of any kind occurred in Europe for several hundred years.”

    Huh? Europe didn’t have enough light for several hundred years for the purpose of gardening? if that’s true, then NO plants or trees would have existed.

  2. The author responds: I thought that was pretty funny when I wrote the article back about 20 years ago for our print edition of our newsletter (now defunct).

    It was just a joke about the Dark Ages. Dark Ages…no light. Not much of a joke in retrospect, but there you have it.

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