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Topiary — Shrubs That Double as Sculpture

Gardens of Vatican City, Rome, Italy. (Shutterstock.com)

By Anne Levin

It all began with the Romans.

Topiary, those shrubs carved into fanciful shapes representing everything from the animal kingdom to wedding cakes, has been in practice at least since the first century. It was then that the lawyer and author Pliny the Younger, known for his detailed accounts of life during the Roman Empire, described the cypress animals, figures, inscriptions, and obelisks on the grounds of his villa on the Tuscan coast.

While the term “topiary” is most associated with the formal estates that boast towering, green sculptures, it also applies to the potted herbs and woody plants, trained into defined shapes, that might be found in normal-size, residential gardens. Sculptural plants based in urns and classic-style containers can add symmetry to even the most compact outdoor spaces.

But we are focused here on the fantastic. While the excesses of topiary gardening fell out of practice with the collapse of Rome and stayed largely dormant for nine centuries, there was a resurgence around the time of the Renaissance. In Italy, France, and England, it eventually regained popularity.

The world’s oldest topiary garden is Levens Hall, an Elizabethan manor in Britain’s Lake District. The garden still survives in its original design. Huge yew and beech hedges from the 1690s form elaborate garden rooms, and shrubs with “top hats” seem to balance on a single trunk. More than 100 specimens, including abstract pyramids and columns, are on the meticulously manicured grounds.

Levens Hall in Cumbria England. (Wikipedia/Rbagotlevens)

In France’s Dordogne Valley, there is the Chateau de Marqueyssac, where acres of boxwoods are trained to mimic the valley’s surrounding hills or the backs of grazing sheep. There are more than 150,000 of them, some dating back to the 1860s. After some years of decline, the topiary gardens were restored to their old character — and then some — when the property was purchased by a new owner in 1996. Today, Marqueyssac is classified among the Notable Gardens of France by the Committee of Parks and Gardens of the French Ministry of Culture.

Gardens of the Chateau de Marqueyssac in Dordogne Valley. (Shutterstock.com)

Drummond Castle in Scotland, Chateau de Villandry in France, Ladew Gardens in Maryland, and Britain’s Cliveden are other notable topiary locales. And then there is Longwood Gardens.

Model of Main Fountain Garden at Longwood Gardens. (Courtesy of Longwood Gardens)

Located in Kennett Square, Pa., an easy day trip’s distance from Princeton, Longwood’s topiary garden is considered one of the best examples of its kind in the United States. It was established by Pierre S. du Pont, who purchased the property, a once-thriving arboretum that had fallen into disrepair, in 1906. Though he bought the land simply to save the trees from being cut down for timber, du Pont soon began transforming the farm that occupied it into a garden of horticultural display.

Eventually, topiary became a prominent part of the mix. The 1,077-acre site also includes indoor gardens, fountains, greenhouses, and 4,600 different types of plants and trees. Today, there are 35 topiary specimens on the grounds.

“In 1936, Pierre du Pont took what used to be the old vegetable garden and turned it into the sundial garden,” said Troy Sellers, one of three outdoor display managers at Longwood Gardens. “He planted 11 large taxus (yew) shrubs, and that’s how it all started. Then, in 1958, he bought 30 pieces from a Long Island estate. They were already 40 years old and shaped. That was the second phase.”

Those large yew topiaries in six different designs came from the estate of Mrs. Harrison Williams, who became the Countess Mona von Bismarck after her next marriage. The topiaries were planted among the existing yews that surrounded Longwood’s sundial. A few years later, more specimens were added from additional sources, and the space was officially renamed the Topiary Garden.

Topiary Garden at Longwood Gardens. (Courtesy of Longwood Gardens)

Miller’s Landscape Service of Greenvale, N.Y., delivered 30 yew topiaries to Longwood Gardens in 1958. (Photo by Gottlieb A. Hampfler/Courtesy of Longwood Gardens)

The skilled workers who shape topiary are called shearers. Keeping the specimens in shape is a complex job. Sellers has been at it for 28 years.

“A lot of the shapes were already pre-determined when I got here,” he said. “So, we’ve sort of just kept them that way, making minor changes. As they get older, the branches start to droop a bit, so you have to make adjustments. But we’ve pretty much kept it as it is.”

“Through the 1970s and 1980s, the caretakers of the Longwood Topiary Garden added many whimsical pieces to the landscape, including one large, rounded shrub in which [former Topiary and Rose Garden Head Gardener Dave] Thompson created a tail, thinking it resembled an animal,” reads an article on the Longwood website. “He added some eyes and the start of ears but couldn’t tell if it was more a dog or a bird, until a group of young children came into the garden one day and excitedly declared it ‘Snoopy’s dog house.’ A swan made its debut in the 1980s, but unfortunately succumbed to drainage issues, hot summers, and heavy snows.”

Children are among the biggest fans of the Topiary Garden. “They run around, and they love it,” said Sellers. “They play hide and seek and try to figure out what the pieces are. It’s great to hear their interpretations.”

Along with Snoopy, the topiary at Longwood includes other animals, iconic wedding cakes topped with birds, and seven of the original 11 domes that were planted in 1936. The best time to see them, said Sellers, is the end of July or early August, into early fall.

“We start shearing at the end of June, which is when the plants’ growth is completely elongated,” he said. “It takes from three to five weeks. If it’s hot, or it rains, it takes even longer. If we shear it before it’s completely done growing, that’s not good. So, we wait until the optimal time. They’ll get a little bit of growth in early fall.”

(Photo by Matthew Ross/Courtesy of Longwood Gardens)

A succession plan is always in place. Backups are ready to be planted in place of the specimens that die out.

Sellers has visited other topiary gardens, notably on a trip to France.

“Over the years, I’ve seen quite a bit,” he said. “I think we’re right up there, especially here in the U.S., because of our history, and the fact that we still have some of the older plants. That’s what makes us unique.”

“Nightscape” topiaries. (Photo by Hank Davis/Courtesy of Longwood Gardens)

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