Topiary is a late 16th-century English term originating from the Greek work topos, place, and the Latin word topiarius, ornamental gardener. The earliest documented case of topiary is found in letters by Pliny the Younger. He described the cypress animals, figures, inscriptions, and obelisks in his Tuscan villa and credited Gaius Matius Calvinus for introducing the art to Julius Caesar, who in turn popularized it across the Roman Empire. Pleasure gardening fell out of practice with the collapse of Rome and remained largely dormant for nine centuries.
Constant fighting pushed cities behind walls; there was no room for gardens. Topiary’s ornamental nature shifted to a practical one; fruit trees were pruned flat to save space, which later became its own style known as espaliers. Monks preserved the art by growing herbs and manicuring hedges within courtyards.
With the Renaissance came a resurgence in gardening and topiary. Italian gardens were designed around pleasurable views; hedges enforced axes and framed neighboring pastoral fields. Verdant orbs, pyramids, and obelisks anchored corners, just as in the Roman times.
The French expanded on Italy’s geometric garden planning to massive scales. They stressed control over proportions and symmetry as far as the eye could see, most notably in the gardens of Versailles. While the French favored perfect cones, globes, and obelisks, the Dutch became adept at complicated figures, including animals, furniture, and pavilions, but at more intimate scales.
Franco-Dutch gardening traditions made their way to England, and by the 17th century the ideas reached their peak of extravagance and bordered on the absurd. Topiary could be found in the most exorbitant manors to the humblest cottages. Bushy beasts grazed in fields, ships drifted through roses, and Adams and Eves shared fruit. Shears left their mark on every aspect of the English garden.
Topiary’s ubiquity among English gardens eventually led to their demise in the 18th century. Alexander Pope’s satirical essay “Verdant Sculpture” criticized topiary, favoring the picturesque. By the 1720s and 30s, topiary had quickly grown out of fashion and had been cleared from all prominent English gardens. Levens Hall is the oldest and only surviving topiary garden from that era. Topiary lived on as a folkcraft in modest villages apathetic to trends.
One hundred years later, England rediscovered the charm of cottage gardens and a fascination for creating outdoor, hedge-lined rooms. By the 1870s, sculptural topiary’s popularity caught up and remained in style until the end of the century.
Coupled with a houseplant boom in the 50s and 60s, Disney World brought topiary to America’s main stage with their trademarked shrubby characters. Disney developed portable topiaries by fastening moss and shrubs to steel wires, which served as supports and permanent cutting guides. Portable and indoor topiary became a staple American art form ever since.
Topiary continues to thrive today, from grand displays at the 2008 Summer Olympics in China to rudimentary lawn maintenance in Staten Island. Topiary is an expression of our primitive need for control. From planting hedges around crops in the Neolithic age to table-toppers of today, topiary with stand the tests of time and always be with us.
Disney World develops and introduces portable topiary to the American public. Moss and shrubs are fastened to steel wires, which doubly serve as a structure and permanent cutting guide. Portable topiary becomes an American staple in home gardening.
America undergoes a houseplant boom.
Sculptural topiary’s popularity catches up and remains in style until the end of the century.
The generation of William Kent and Charles Bridgeman clear prominent English gardens of hedges, mazes, and topiary. Topiary continues as a folkcraft in modest villages.
Château de Marqueyssac’s 1860 playfully abstract boxwood garden is restored.
Giles Sermadiras creates a new garden for the 17c Manor d’Eyrignac, inspired by designs from the Renaissance to late 18c.
Harvey Ladew purchases 250 acres of farmland in Maryland to build a personal estate. Ladew personally lays out and manicures a 22-acre topiary garden, one of the most outstanding in America.
England rediscovers the charm of the cottage gardens and is fascinated with creating outdoor rooms from hedges.
The height of England’s topiary golden age. No bush is left untouched.
Le Notre’s disciple, Beaumont, lays out the gardens of Levens Hall, the oldest and only remaining topiary garden from England’s topiary golden age.
Known for cultivating complicated topiary figures including animals, furniture, and pavilions, the Dutch become a global horticultural exporter.
French gardens inspired by the Italian Renaissance sprout up, adapting the concepts to grander scales with a mathematical emphasis.
Alexander Pope satirizes topiary in his essay “Verdant Sculpture,” spearheading England’s preference for natural landscapes over manicured lawns.
The New World sees its first knot garden in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Le Notre begins planning Versailles’s garden expansion – the apex of French garden design principles.
Knot gardens, the English interpretation of the monks’ herbal gardens and French parterres, are popularized during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign.
Cosimo I de Medici commissions a garden and the expansion of Villa Castello, an early and highly influential precedent for future Italian and French garden designs.
Boboli Garden construction begins. It is a prime example of Italian Renaissance garden design.
The Italian Renaissance restores interest in gardening and topiary. Typical Italian gardens are filled with topiary orbs and obelisks, hedges framing landscapes beyond, fountains, statues, grottos, and, later, water organs.
Taste for architecture and gardening spreads north through Europe; labyrinths and mazes become commonplace among estates. Holland takes a particular interest in training boxwood.
France reintroduces gardening to England via William the Conqueror.
Charlemagne sparks France’s interest for cultivating herbs and fruits.
Gaius Matius Calvinus introduces topiary to Julius Caesar, who in turn popularized it across the Roman Empire. Slaves decorate villas with cypress geometries, animals, figures, inscriptions, and ships.
Topiary falls out of practice with the dissolution of Rome. Monks preserve the art by growing herbs and manicuring hedges within courtyards.