The Art of Topiary

One of the older and more familiar kinds of living sculpture, topiary is the art of growing dense, leafy plants and pruning them into a form, or training them over a frame, to create a three-dimensional object. It relies on pruning and training to give shape to an existing plant.

Topiary is one type of living sculpture that has gone in and out of favor though the ages.

  • Earliest references of topiary date back to 23-79 A.D.
  • It was very popular in Ancient Rome using cypress trees, but after the fall of Rome, topiary fell out of favor for several hundred years.
  • It returned in medieval times as a way of training fruit plants, and was rediscovered during the Italian Renaissance.
  • The Dutch in the 15th century became intrigued with creating topiary in animal shapes, as did 17th century England; the French preferred creating topiary in geometric designs with strict symmetry.
  • 18th century, topiary fell out of favor again, and a natural look returned.
  • Victorians brought back topiary adding in new plants and details.
  • Topiary spread to North America at Williamsburg, Virginia, around 1690.
  • As houseplants became popular in the 1950’s and ‘60s, topiary moved indoors as well.

Indoor topiaries for tabletop display can be found at most gardening centers.  Wire forms for growing topiaries are also available in addition to tools and classes. Some of the common plants that work well for topiaries are:

  • Boxwood (English, African, Japanese)
  • Ivy
  • Creeping fig

In general you should look for a relatively compact shrub that readily branches. The other issues to contend with are leaf size and plant growth. In the case of leaf size, the size of the cage is the determining factor; the smaller the cage or form, the smaller the leaf size needed in order to maintain the shape of the display.

Outdoor topiaries, however, are harder to find. During the summer and fall, the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island has a beautiful and fascinating topiary garden.

Closer to home, the 10 acre Horticultural Demonstration Gardens at Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI have a very impressive topiary display. They are open daily, from Dawn to Dusk, during spring, summer and fall. They close from Nov. 1 through March 31.

Adults and children alike, delight in seeing life-size animals and structures on display.

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