Art of training living trees and shrubs into artificial, decorative shapes. Topiary is known to have been practiced in the 1st century AD. The earliest topiary was probably the simple development of edgings, cones, columns, and spires to accent a garden scene. This architectural use gave way to elaborate shapes such as ships, hunters, and hounds. The fashion reached its height in Britain in the late 17th and early 18th century but was displaced by the so-called natural garden.
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Topiary is the art of creating sculptures in the medium of clipped trees, shrubs and sub-shrubs. The word derives from the Latin word for an ornamental landscape gardener, topiarius, creator of topia or "places", a Greek word that Romans applied also to fictive indoor landscapes executed in fresco. No doubt the use of a Greek word betokens the art's origins in the Hellenistic world that was influenced by Persia, for neither Classical Greece nor Republican Rome developed any sophisticated tradition of artful pleasure grounds.
The shrubs and sub-shrubs used in topiary are evergreen, have small leaves or needles, produce dense foliage, and have compact and/or columnar (e.g. fastigiate) growth habits. Common plants used in topiary include cultivars of box (Buxus sempervirens), arborvitae (Thuja spp.), bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), holly (Ilex spp.), myrtle (Eugenia or Myrtus species), yew (Taxus species), and privet (Ligustrum species.). Shaped wire cages are sometimes employed in modern topiary to guide untutored shears, but traditional topiary depends on patience and a steady hand; small-leaved ivy can be used to cover a cage and give the look of topiary in a few months. The hedge is a simple form of topiary used to create boundaries, walls or screens.
Clipping and shaping of shrubs and trees in China and Japan has been practised with equal rigor, but to entirely different esthetic aims: the artful expression of the "natural" forms of venerably aged pines, given character by the forces of wind and weather. Their most concentrated expressions are in the related arts of Chinese penjing and Japanese bonsai.
Japanese cloud-pruning (illustration) is closest to the European art: the cloudlike forms of clipped growth are designed to be best appreciated after a fall of snow.
From its European revival in the 16th century, topiary has historically been associated with both the parterres and terraces in gardens of the European elite and equally as features in cottage gardens. Traditional topiary forms use foliage pruned and/or trained into geometric shapes: balls or cubes, obelisks, pyramids, cones, tapering spirals, and the like. Representational forms depicting people, animals, and manmade objects have also been popular.
Topiary at Versailles and its imitators was never complicated: low hedges punctuated by potted trees trimmed as balls on standards, interrupted by obelisks at corners provided the vertical features of flat-patterned parterre gardens. Sculptural forms were provided by stone and lead sculptures. In Holland, however, the fashion was established for more complicated topiary designs; this Franco-Dutch garden style spread to England after 1660.
In England topiary was all but killed in fashion by the famous satiric essay on "Verdant Sculpture" that Alexander Pope published in The Guardian, 29 September 1713, with its mock catalogue descriptions of
The revival of topiary in English gardening parallels the revived "Jacobethan" taste in architecture; John Loudon in the 1840s was the first garden writer to express a sense of loss at the topiary that had been removed from English gardens. The following generation, represented by Shirley Hibberd, rediscovered the charm of specimens as part of the mystique of the "English cottage garden", which was as much invented as revived from the 1870s:
The classic statement of the British Arts and Crafts revival of topiary among roses and mixed herbaceous borders was Topiary: Garden Craftsmanship in Yew and Box by Nathaniel Lloyd (1867-1933), who had retired in middle age and taken up architectural design under the encouragement of Sir Edwin Lutyens: Lloyd's own timber-framed manor house, Great Dixter, Sussex, remains an epitome of this stylized mix of topiary with "cottagey" plantings that was practised by Gertrude Jekyll and Edwin Luyens in a fruitful partnership.
Topiary, which had featured in very few eighteenth-century American gardens, came into favour with the Colonial Revival gardens and the grand manner of the American Renaissance, 1880–1920. The beginning of a concern with the revival and maintenance of historic gardens in the 20th century led to the replanting of the topiary maze at the Governor's Palace, Colonial Williamsburg, in the 1930s.