It can be hard to put your finger on exactly where the art of topiary started however, looking back in history, it would be fair to say that it started in Europe. In fact, it looks like the Ancient Romans may have been the ones who kicked off the history of topiary gardens.
Romans and Topiary
Why did the Ancient Romans love topiary? Archaeology suggests that the Romans appreciated order and structure through their societal structures, and they applied this to gardening as well.
It all started with the humble olive tree which grow in abundance on the hills of Ancient Rome. To ensure the planted parks surrounding Rome looked neat and tidy, olive trees were sculpted into various shapes; indeed, when it comes to Italian topiary, things have not changed that much.
The Renaissance reinvigorated the art of topiary gardens with grand expressions appearing in the formal family landscapes of the rich and famous, and this design philosophy spread across Europe as part of the wider artistic diaspora.
In modern-day Italy, olive trees are still sculpted into formal structures but modern trends and tastes have clearly influenced the design approach. Visit any large private villa or estate in Italy, and you will soon be confronted by a display of pruned perfection. For hundreds of years now, large trees and bushes have been turned into works of art. The look is still pretty formal and structured often providing a tempered contrast to the rustic beauty of the Italian countryside.
Topiary Gardens in the Far East
With an approach akin to that of bonsai, the Chinese and Japanese version of topiary, which has been around for hundreds of years, works to highlight the natural beauty of the plants. Unlike the European style, where geometry and tight forms are the ultimate goal, the Eastern methods sought to enhance the existing forms and support their organic expression with attentive pruning and shaping of structure over long periods of time. Cloud pruning has become a popular technique, in which plants are shaped so that their snow-covered bushes resemble clouds in the colder times of the year.
French Topiary and Versailles
It is thought that it was King Louis XIV who introduced topiary to France. This extravagant Royal, also known as the Sun King had travelled extensively in Italy and was said to have been very close to the Pope. At that time, the gardens in the Vatican were full of hedged art, and it is believed that King Louis brought the idea with him to France. When he started to rebuild Versailles, he wanted to turn the garden into both a formal and fun space.
If you want to see some one of the finest example of formal gardens in the world, a trip to Versailles might be worth it. It takes an entire team of gardeners to look after the topiary in the palace garden. Once there, you can marvel at their skill and perhaps even have a bit of a giggle as some of the trimmed shapes; some of it is a little bit “risque”.
Has topiary in France evolved since the day of the Sun King? Sadly not; it seems that many French think that King Louis exhausted the rule book when it came to topiary. Most of the plant-based sculptures you will see in French gardens are mirror images of what you can find in the gardens of Versailles. However that is no insult and French topiary remains a stunning form of horticulture.
The world’s oldest topiary garden still in it’s original form can be enjoyed at Leven’s Hall in Cumbria, and this awe-inspiring collection of geometric planting dates back to 1690. A popular choice for the aristocracy, it is rumoured that the Queen herself has a love for the art form and has a few interesting topiary sculptures in her private Windsor garden.
Over the last fifty years, topiary in the UK has evolved into a way of expressing yourself. You can have a front lawn covered in strutting chickens made from Box or your hedge may have been trimmed in the shape of a large airplane to let the world know you are a pilot. Even London townhouse balconies are packed with topiary art. The Brits are prepared to pay a small fortune to have a specialist create the perfect topiary art emblem in their gardens.
Worldwide Topiary Gardens
The British Empire had an impact on the world of varying levels of goodness, but one strange effect of expansion was the prevalence of topiary in new countries.
While the specific plants used may vary with location, the concept of creative pruning has been adopted by thousands of global gardeners. As the craft form continues, new ideas continue to inspire people in new creative directions for their gardening goals.
From historic beginnings it seems that the art of perfectly planted hedges and formal gardens has captured the imaginations of a global community. Nature should be respected and honoured, and the new approaches to this horticultural form should ensure that it remains a pleasantly popular pastime for many years to come.