It’s World Topiary Day!
Today, Sunday 14 May, is World Topiary Day. Who knew? Not me, obviously, but Mrs P stumbled across a reference somewhere and thought it might make for an interesting post. For the uninitiated, topiary is the art of shaping shrubs and sculpting compact trees and hedges into ornamental representations of birds and animals, as well as various decorative architectural forms. It is believed to have originated in ancient Rome, was revived in Renaissance Italy, and became a big hit in 17th century England.
Today, if you look hard enough, you can find examples of topiary just about anywhere. We see it frequently when visiting grand stately homes in the UK, but have also encountered it in parks, gardens and other horticultural settings as far apart as Costa Rica, Australia, the US and Singapore.
At its best topiary is great to look at, and you are left wondering “How long did that take?” or “How did they manage that?” and, just occasionally, “Why on earth did they bother?” It’s an art form, and I can’t help admiring people with the imagination, skills and dedication needed to turn a few random bushes and trees into something so spectacular that “Wow!” is the first thought springing to mind when you encounter their creations.
Of course, the trouble with living things is that eventually they die, and one of the saddest sights is to see topiary creations disfigured by the ravages of time and disease. Unfortunately, it’s a particular problem right now in topiary fashioned from the box tree. Box is a compact, slow-growing evergreen tree that is ideal for topiary work, but a fungal disease called box blight causes leaves to turn brown and drop off, leaving behind unsightly bare branches. This, sadly, is ruining and sometimes killing off many otherwise attractive topiary creations.
Some places go mad for topiary. Zarcero, for example, is a totally unremarkable little town situated in the mountains of Costa Rica, roughly 80km from the capital San Jose. Unremarkable, that is, until you visit the park, where cypress trees have been painstakingly shaped into arches, dinosaurs, birds, dogs and sundry other shapes. Not at all what we expected on our 2008 trip to Costa Rica, but loads of fun!
Zarcero, Costa Rica (2008)
And what about Railton? Although wildlife viewing was the main purpose of our only visit to Australia – as it had also been when we went to Costa Rica – how could we resist a visit to Tasmania’s “Town of Topiary”? Looking back to my blog of that trip I see I had a lot to say about Railton, not all of it very complimentary. I observed that “Many of the living sculptures have seen better days and are apparently suffering from die-back, or neglect, or both. A few are plainly still tended and the “topiary park” has some reasonable figures, but others have clearly been abandoned to their fate and nature is taking its inevitable course.” That was back in 2016. Hopefully things have improved since then, and the Town of Topiary is back on track..
Railton, Tasmania (2016.) The horse and jockey is probably the best single piece of topiary I’ve ever seen.
Our experience at the Green Animals Topiary Garden in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, was more positive but equally unexpected. There are plenty of good reasons for visiting the smallest state in the US, and topiary isn’t one of them. However Green Animals offered a welcome distraction from the endless extravagance of the Gilded Age mansions, and was definitely worth the side-trip we made to see it in 2007. It claims to be the oldest topiary garden in the US with more than eighty sculpted trees, including teddy bears, a camel an elephant and even a person in a peaked cap.
Green Animals Topiary Garden, Portsmouth, Rhode Island (2007)
Our own garden is large enough to accommodate a piece of topiary – indeed, our neighbour, who is a keen and talented gardener, has done just that – but it’s not something I’ve ever been tempted to try. In my view, life’s way too short to consider turning hedge cutting into a hobby. The wretched things needs clipping regularly, or they quickly become unkempt: look carefully at the photos, and you’ll see that many of the living sculptures we’ve seen over the years were badly in need of a trim!
So instead of creating my own piece of topiary I’ll have to make do with appreciating other people’s efforts, like those shown in the photos taken from Mrs P’s extensive archive of our travels. Who would have believed you can achieve so much with just a few trees and a hedge trimmer? The way I see it, topiary is definitely worth celebrating, so long as it’s someone else who’s doing all the hard work. Have a Happy World Topiary Day, guys!