The Lost Art of Topiary
The Lost Art of Topiary: Yay or Nay?
Unless you visit someplace like Disney World, topiary — with its eye-catching double-take shapes, geometric designs, and sheared figures — is fast becoming a lost art. The specialized training and large amount of time required to trim these intricate figures — and the increasing cost of that time — has slowly pushed this art form into hiding.
Topiary is the ancient art of shaping living plants into clearly defined, imaginative forms by clipping their leaves and twigs. The Romans invented the art form, when they weren’t busy conquering most of the known world. During the reign of Julius Ceasar, topiary gardens became a common sight in the atriums of Roman villas, an area that had previously been quite plain. The word topiary comes from the Latin “toparius”, meaning a creator of spaces (or topia).
Evergreens are typically used for topiary, as they can provide a lasting feature throughout all seasons.
F1 Topiary Phot credit: Karnaphuli
“Typically, box (Buxus sempervirens) and yew (Taxus baccata) are used; however, other evergreens such as privet (Ligustrum japonicum), holly (Ilex) and Lonicera nitida can be used.”- RHS (Royal Horticulture Society)
Topiary experienced a revival during the Renaissance. It was associated with the terraced gardens of the elite, such as the palace of Versailles, as well as appearing in Cottage Gardens. There are many very old and beautifully preserved topiary gardens in Europe.
Topiary from Epcot’s Flower and Garden Festival at Walt Disney World Credit: Monica Lehua
Walt Disney is largely to thank for the 20th-century revival of interest in topiary. Uncle Walt had his cartoon characters recreated throughout Disneyland as landscape shrubbery. Thus, “American Portable-style Topiary” was introduced to the world. This style of topiary is based on a steel wire frame or skeleton that acts as a cutting guide.
Not just pretty shapes
No matter what your perception, topiary takes patience, a keen eye, and a steady hand to clip and shear in just the right way and place. A tree will always be shaped to a certain extent by its environment — the nutrients available, the prevailing wind, and so on.
The topiarists’ concern is not just for a tree that looks like a certain shape, but one that still lives and thrives. The resulting tree looks no longer like the one depicted in the field guides, but then neither would one that germinated next to a wall or under dense tree cover. In managing the environment so that the tree thrives, the topiarists seem to have an important goal of the tree at heart.
Photo: Laugery-Bordeaux and courtesy of Les Jardins de Marqueyssac-Dordogne-France
Topiary should remain a craft that man continues using as an extension of creativity entwined with nature. Personally, my opinion is that topiary in the present day isn’t about man showing dominance and control as it was in the past: Many examples of topiary excite and bring life to the space in which they occupy. It just goes to show that man not only dwells in nature, but also transforms it.
From the very beginning of our existence, and with increasing intensity, the human society has adapted environing nature. Balance is recommended, but topiary being an exemplar of man and nature’s co-existence and its creativity must not be overlooked!
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Win Phyo is dynamic, straight talking no nonsense writer which deals with a range of diverse topics that delve into the full scope of the profession of Landscape Architecture.
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