On a walk through Versailles, its maniacal grandeur is impossible to ignore. In the film The Shining, it is an endless maze with horror at every turn. It is a dark art that literally comes alive for Edward Scissorhands. This shear madness is topiary.
Topiary is the horticultural art of training landscapes into defined shapes and recognizable figures and most likely developed in the stoic confines of Hellenistic Greece (topia is Greek for ‘places’). From the carefully pruned evergreen plants popularized in the atriums of Ancient Rome, to the weathered pines of Chinese penjing and Japanese bonsai, to today’s limitless mosaicultures, topiary has evolved to serve the maniacal inspirations of its creators. From Louis the XIV to Edward Scissorhands, these artisans have sought to amaze with mazes and unhinge with hedges.
Modern topiary, also known as mosaiculture, has taken Western aesthetic, Eastern construction and contemporary materials to limitless new heights. Using steel frames stuffed with planting material to free artisans from earlier constraints imposed by bushes, such as size, growth time and plant selection, topiary’s modern iteration is super-sized. Everything from gargantuan dinosaurs to corporate logos can be executed with these new methods.
Joe Kyte, aka Topiary Joe, is a topiarist who calls the British royal family among his many clients. The tool kit for a practitioner has changed, he says. “I use an old arc welder, a table vise and a pile of 3/8″ round, cold rolled steel. That is my shop… and I can duplicate it anywhere a larger project is required. Making projects on the job site is much less of a carbon footprint.” Quite a departure from a pair of shears and a pair of gloves. Kyte creates extremes, shearing into shape ‘”a Bugatti type 35b for a collector, 12-foot naked ladies for restaurants, a rather large penis in the ground, and monkeys peeing out of the tree on guests as they go toward the garden.” Extreme indeed.
While its early artisans’ wildest visions pale in comparison to the sheer madness of modern topiarists’, traditional strains remain to turn simple staircases into greenery dreamscapes. Topiary has not only withstood the test of time, it also incorporates the tastes of time.
Create your own green landscapes with our Garden Tools Category.
Leading image: Passage, Leavens Hall, Archival pigment print by Beth Dow