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.

A tree sheared to look like a coin.

In the battle of wills, man dominates tree. Sheared into an unnaturally obedient shape.

Topiary’s provocative blurring of the line between nature and sculpture has often maddened critics. In fact, the earliest known mention of topiary, by Roman Pliny the Younger, was a rebuke of its use in the villas of Rome (Historia Naturalis xii.6). In 18th century England, Alexander Pope ridiculed the mad topiarists with his “verdant sculpture.” The written piece included catalog-type descriptions of the most absurd topiary imaginable: “Adam and Eve in yew,” “The tower of Babel, not yet finished,” and “a quickset hog, shot up into a porcupine.” Though the article presaged a temporary decline of the practice in England, its vision of extreme sculpture perhaps inspired the next and most recent wave in the art.

A picnic table with a two topiary next to it

A pair of perfect order flanking a picnic table.

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.

A field of bulbous topiary bushes

Bushes are just never bulbous enough on their own.

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.

Eight drawn diagrams of topiary

Balls, birds and pyramids — the components of classic topiary.


Behind the Scenes: Tim Burton: Topiary. MoMA videos, YouTube
Green Animals Topiary Garden, Atlas Obscura
Aerologging, Pruned

Leading image: Passage, Leavens Hall, Archival pigment print by Beth Dow

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