Humans have — quite literally — sought to conquer and alter nature since time immemorial. The plant kingdom is no exception, and the art of topiary is one of the most visually-striking examples of the ways in which we’ve existed in a symbiotic relationship with nature since the dawn of our existence.
If you’ve ever admired shrubs and other plants pruned and sheared into decidedly unusual shapes — from perfect spheres to elephants, and from cubes to entire mazes — you might wonder what it would take to incorporate topiary art into your own garden.
Spoiler alert: If you have no prior experience, you will probably want to hire an extremely skilled landscape gardener for the best results, or you’ll have to learn through trial and error. Cutting plants into unusual ornamental shapes is no easy feat, after all. Not all plants lend themselves well to this kind of shaping and training, either, and to have even the slightest chance of success in creating your own topiary garden, you’ll have to choose the perfect plants.
It will surprise nobody that most of the popular topiary plants are evergreen shrubs — a choice that helps the artists who shape these plants preserve their handiwork for as long as possible. Not all topiary plants are evergreens, however. Some are deciduous, and some are even herbs.
Are you planning to dive into the art of topiary? Learn from the Buddhists, and make peace with the fact that nothing is ever permanent — your art will either fade quickly, or require a lot of work to maintain. Choosing the right topiary plants will, on the other hand, give you the best best chance of success in creating a shape that you are proud to display in your garden.
A Brief Look at the History of Topiary Plants and Gardens
“Topiary” can be defined as the art — because it really is an art, rather than a craft — of trimming, pruning, and shearing plants into unusual, mesmerizing, ornamental shapes. This art allows the artist to leave his or her unique mark on the natural landscape, for all to enjoy. Its living, ever-transforming, nature makes topiary an unusually impermanent art form. Topiary is perhaps best compared to ice sculpting, which originated in colder northern climates, or to rangoli, an Indian art form that uses transient materials like flour, sand, or flower petals to create shapes on floors and tabletops, in that it doesn’t last very long.
The fact that the word topiary itself has a long history allows us to understand the long period of time over which this art, which might be called “plant art” in modern English, has endured. It comes from the Latin topiarius, from topia which means “ornamental gardening”, by way of the Greek word topos, which itself means “place”.
Although the lifespan of topiary art is infinitely shorter than that of, for instance, sculpture, architecture, or paintings, the origins of the word do give some insights into the first-recorded use of this art form — said to have began with a friend of the Roman emperor Augustus during Roman times.
Topiary, as practiced today in the western world, has a decidedly European history. After all but dying out with the fall of the Roman Empire, it once again became fashionable in sixteenth-century England. Priest William Lawson famously suggested, for example, that gardeners could transform nature. Gardeners, he said, could “frame your lesser wood to the shape of men armed in the field, ready to give battell: or swift-running Grey Houndes to chase the Deere”.
These human and animal shapes have, alongside geometrical shapes, remained a mainstay of European topiary ever since — a form of the art that’s traveled the globe since Lawson made his curious observations, of course. Other cultures have their own forms of topiary. The famous Japanese art of bonsai can, for instance, easily be considered a form of topiary in that trees are trained into unusual and artificial shapes. Japanese cloud pruning is even more similar to topiary.
Topiary has gone in and out of style for a very long time, over the course of centuries, but truly modern topiary can be said to originate with none other than Walt Disney. The animator wanted to see his characters come to life in the form of trees in Disney Land in the 1960s, and as a result, you’ll still see topiary everywhere from zoos to the perfectly-manicured gardens of corporate headquarters.
What would it take to enjoy this form of art in your own garden? Well, expert landscapers can do it for you, for a fee — often getting to work on portable compact shrubs that can overwinter inside, if need be. Everyone has to begin somewhere, of course, so if you’d like to try your hand at training your plants into unusual and eye-catching shapes, you certainly can. With love, dedication, and a lot of patience, you may even become very good at it.
What Are the Most Popular Themes in Modern Topiary?
If there was ever a time without rules — one in which everyone can enjoy precisely want they want to — it’s now. The most popular, or commonly seen, topiary shapes are partly determined by the ease with which they can be created, and partly by the desires of the people in charge of any given garden.
If you’re hoping to create your own topiary garden, you might want to consider the following popular topiary shapes:
- Spheres have been popular in topiary gardening for a long time, in part precisely because they are one of the easier shapes to train diverse types of plants into.
- Pyramid or conical shapes are another example of a topiary shape that’s fairly straightforward to achieve, making them another go-to choice.
- Other geometric shapes are popular, too — and these can range from triangles, rectangles, squares, circles, diamond shapes, and octagons or hexagons, mainly trimmed into low-growing shrubs used as hedges. The “clean”, tidy, nature of these geometric shapes makes them especially common in more formal gardens, such as those seen in corporate or political settings.
- Pillars, including layered or tiered pillars, are seen quite often, too, and these call for tall shrubs. Building on pillars, long topiary shapes can be sheared into spiral shapes.
- Animal shapes often seen in topiary include birds (including swans and songbirds), hounds, deer, bears, fish, elephants, giraffes, and dinosaurs. Almost any animal shape can be incorporated into a topiary gardening project with the right dose of dedication, and if a suitable plant is chosen. Animal shapes are especially playful and are guaranteed to be a hit with children.
- Human shapes are also occasionally seen.
- Some topiary plants mimic natural shapes, such as flowers or mushrooms.
While the sky is practically the limit in topiary, this quick look should make it clear that topiary isn’t just suited for extremely manicured, harsh-looking, formal gardens. Indeed, topiary has gained popularity in cottage-style gardens, where unusual shapes may grow alongside abundant wildflowers, and even in “fairy gardens”, in which case mushroom and star shapes are especially treasured.
Topiary can be elaborate and precise, or it may consist of nothing more than placing a frame over a small plant — it refers, after all, simply to the practice of training plants into unique and artificial shapes.
A Look at the Toolkit of the Topiary Artist
Creating topiary plants requires a set of tools — and the more elaborate you want to be, the more tools you’ll need. Topiary artists may use:
- Garden shears.
- Topiary frames made from metal or plastic wires, and which are sufficient if you want to create very simple shapes — alongside some pruning. Spheres, cone shapes, heart shapes, pillars, and stars are among the most popular shapes for topiary frames. Some are shaped like cats, bunnies, or even leaves.
- Topiary clippers, specialized topiary tools that will allow you to train and prune your topiary plants with much more precision.
- In the case of extremely large or tall topiary plants, shrubs and small trees, hedge trimmers will be required.
In addition, you’ll still need to provide your topiary plants with the right care and climate conditions. If you’re doing freehand topiary (or attempting to) and want straight and neat lines, like cubes, measuring tools and spirit levels may enter the equation.
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The Top 6 Topiary Plants
All plants can be trimmed and trained to some extent. For elaborate topiary designs, evergreen shrubs with dense foliage remain the most popular choice for obvious reasons, but looser designs can be practiced with almost any plant.
Are you dreaming of creating a perfect cube, or a shrub that resembles your cat? You’ll need to pick plants that will bend to your will, which tolerates extremely frequent pruning and is resistant to most plant diseases and pests.
Keep reading to discover what top topiary plants are the go-to options for experienced topiary artists, but do keep in mind that they’re far from your only choices, as well as remembering that it’s always best to start with easier shapes if you’re completely new to topiary.
Boxwood — scientifically known as Buxus — is a genus of around 150 evergreen shrubs native to Europe and Asia and tolerant of a wide variety of soil types and lighting conditions. These shrubs are a trusted staple in the topiary community for good reason — boxwood species spread widely and can be cut and sheared to extremely intricate and lovely shapes. Boxwood species are also among the easier topiary plants to work with for beginners, and that’s exactly why it’s our top pick for this list.
Boxwood species are extremely dense shrubs with flowers so small you probably won’t even notice them, and that is why they are one of the first choices most topiary artists will make when it comes to simpler designs.
The only problem with boxwood when it comes to topiary? These evergreen shrubs are great if you are aiming for fairly simple topiary shapes — spheres, cubes, archways, and spirals are all, for instance, quite easy to achieve. However, because boxwood shrubs are quite high maintenance plants it will be hard to make more complex shapes with boxwood.
Want to try cutting shapes into boxwood yourself? Some of the most important facts you’ll want to be familiar with include:
- Boxwood (Buxus spp.) is a genus of woody perennials originating in Europe and Asia. Though their sizes can be entirely different depending on the species, boxwood shrubs usually grow to be around two to eight feet tall.
- Buxus sempervirons ‘Suffruticosa’ is a slow-growing and more compact boxwood species, while the Japanese boxwood shrub is typically used for low hedges and tolerates drought better than other species. Boxwood species can grow to impressive sizes, but dwarf ones varieties also exist, something that means you’ll be able to find the right type of boxwood no matter what you’re planning to do.
- Grow your boxwood shrub in loamy and moist but well-draining soil. Don’t worry too much about pH levels, as boxwood shrubs do fine in neutral, acidic, and alkaline soils. You can choose to fertilize your boxwood with an all-purpose fertilizer in the springtime.
- Place your boxwood shrub in an area that receives either full or partial sunlight.
Overall, the boxwood shrub won’t disappoint you if you’re looking to make a mini hedge or smaller shape — spheres and spirals are most popular for this shrub!
If you’ve always wanted to make a spiral topiary for your garden, the cypress plant is a perfect match! The cypress can be grown as a bush or a tree, and is fairly easy to care for. Cypress bushes — which belong to the Cupressus genus — are coniferous shrubs or trees that are most often shaped into spirals, though they can also have spherical shapes.
Making a good spiral topiary with the cypress plant takes experience. Start training your cypress into a spiral shape while it’s still young to get the best results. Use a landscaping ribbon and tie it into a spiral shape from the tip of your cypress all the way to the base. Cut away all the leaves between the spaces. Don’t worry if your cypress topiary doesn’t look perfect! Topiary is an art, after all, and any art form takes years of practice to perfect.
If you do decide to try your hand at a topiary with a cypress plant, you’ll need to know that:
- Cypresses are needled evergreens that are native to North America and the more temperate areas of East Asia, which means that they prefer more temperate climates with colder winters.
- This plant can thrive in a variety of sunlight levels — full sunlight, partial shade, and deep shade are all suitable for your cypress plant.
- Your cypress plant will definitely appreciate moist soil with good drainage — choose loamy, sandy, or clay soil for the best results. Acidic, alkaline, and neutral pH levels are all fine.
If you have ever seen absolutely mesmerizing half-sphere-shaped topiary trees you just couldn’t take your eyes off of — that’s probably the Taxus baccata or English yew. Topiary bushes might be cool, but there’s something deeply intriguing and unique about the shapes you can make with taller trees. Yew trees are probably the most popular topiary trees, mainly because of their dense bright green foliage that makes them a dream to work with.
Of course, topiary is much harder to do with trees than bushes. Not everyone can shape a tree into a precise shape; this take a professional with years of experience. If you’re only starting out with the art of topiary, but still want a topiary tree, hire a professional.
Interested in trying topiary with the yew tree? Keep in mind that:
- The yew tree (Taxus baccata) is a broadleaf evergreen conifer that can grow to be 30 to 60 feet tall and 15 to 25 feet wide.
- Yew trees tolerate full sun and partial shade.
- This tree loves moist but well-draining loamy or sandy soil with a neutral pH level.
If yews still appeal to you, even if you aren’t interested in tree topiary at the moment, know that there are many species of yews, and some can be grown as small bushes.
Arborviatae (or Thuja) shrubs are popular as hedges and borders because they are vertical needled evergreens that are fairly easy to grow and care for — whether or not they are used as topiary plants. This small genus has five species, some of which are native to North America and some of which originated in Asia. Some are especially drought-tolerant, while others are known to grow and mature quickly.
Thuja occidentalis ‘Art Boe’ is a prime choice for topiary artists looking for a drought-resistant conifer, while T. plicata x T. standishii (a hybrid) is famous for its fast growth rate and exceptionally tall mature size of up to 60 feet, and nearly as wide. These aromatic shrubs or trees are often trimmed into spirals, spheres, or more elaborate shapes like dolphins or deer, but are probably most popular as conical privacy hedges.
If you are considering adding Aborvitae shrubs to your garden, and trying to use them as topiary plants, you will need to know that:
- The cultural conditions these plants require depend on the precise species. Thuja occidentalis (also known as the Eastern White Cedar), for instance, thrives in full sun to partial shade, tolerates moist to occasionally dry (clay or loam, and neutral to alkaline) soil, and doesn’t cope well with heavy wind.
- These shrubs or trees flower, but the blooms are insignificant. They won’t get in the way of your topiary.
Ilex crenata ‘Hetzii’, a cultivar of the Ilex crenata species that’s commonly called Japanese Holly, is a stunning evergreen shrub with a modest mature size of up to six feet. It’s especially popular for topiary because it is multi-stemmed, dense, mounding, and a slow grower. All of these attributes make it possible for topiary artists to trim precise shapes, which range from tidy geometric patterns to complex animal shapes, and expect them to last quite long!
Because Japanese Holly is a broadleaf evergreen, it offers an entirely different look than the needles species we’ve looked at. The glossy attractive leaves are small enough to allow for precise shapes to be made.
- Prefer full sun to partial shade.
- Need soil with good drainage, and love moist conditions.
- Need rich, clay, sandy, or loamy soil.
Wilson’s Honeysuckle (Lonicera Nitida), also called the box honeysuckle, is another amazing choice for topiary. Native to China, it’s famous for its arching branches and its attractive, bright, foliage. This evergreen shrub is a broadleaf that can, in the United States, be grown everywhere but the northernmost regions.
Wilson’s honeysuckle is a popular topiary plant for gardeners looking to create simpler shapes. As a fast grower, it will quickly undo all your hard work — and that’s why you won’t want to attempt more complex topiary. It’s great for looser topiary shapes in cottage garden designs, but the box honeysuckle would also make a wonderful topiary plant for mazes as they are prolific horizontal spreaders.
Before you add it to your garden, you’ll need to know that Wilson’s honeysuckle:
- Thrives in most light conditions, including full sun, partial shade, and dappled sun.
- Prefers loamy, sandy, clay, or rich soil with good drainage.
- Is a great choice for coastal regions.
The world of topiary is an exciting one — and once you step into it, you’ll quickly discover that it goes so much deeper than evergreen needled and broadleaf shrubs and trees. Even herbs like rosemary and lavender can be used as topiary plants, so long as you understand the limits. As a beginner, aim for simple shapes, and step up the complexity level only once you have mastered them. If you keep practicing, the sky is the limit, and you can create amazing works that are guaranteed to impress.