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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Topiary Zoo

Edward Scissorhands (played by Johnny Depp) creating topiaries
Photo credit: Twentieth Century Fox
Director Tim Burton’s film Edward Scissorhands may have popularized the art of topiary for the masses, but the art has been around for a very long time.  Derived from the Greek word “topos” meaning place, and the Latin word “topiarius” which was used to signify an ornamental gardener, topiary may stretch back as far as 60 A.D.   The “training or pruning of plant material into unnatural, geometric, or fantastic shapes” has been well known in Britain since the Middle Ages and became quite fashionable in formal gardens. 

“William the lion” in winter at Topiary Fancies in 
Connecticut with mane and tail 
made of Carex “Evergold,” Nanette Burrows, photographer
In 1719 Alexander Pope wrote a very critical and satiric essay on the practice, stating that topiary was a “monument to perverted taste” and mocking the women who wanted “their own effigies in myrtle, or their husband’s in hornbeam.”  Topiaries nearly vanished from the gardens of the aristocracy, but the tradition continued in smaller cottage gardens and topiaries eventually made their way to the United States. 

Chickens at Newington in Pennsylvania, created using 
wire frames and ivy, Diane Viall, photographer
Topiaries exist in all shapes and forms in the United States and are comprised of different plant materials.  Boxwood is commonly used in the south while yew, spruce, and ilex are generally found in cooler climates.  Before the advent of wire frames which are used to shape and direct the growth of the plant, gardeners had to rely on patience and constant pruning to achieve the desired shape.  While all topiaries are interesting additions to a garden, larger-than-life animal topiary creations are particularly whimsical elements, despite what Alexander Pope may have thought about them.    

Giraffe at Green Animals in Rhode Island,
unknown photographer

Some of the oldest animal topiaries in the United States can be found at Green Animals in Portsmouth, Rhode Island.  These exquisite pieces created from California privet were sculpted by Jose N. Carreiro, the original gardener of the estate who “liked to clip” and was given creative freedom.  On the seven-acre estate he created 80 pieces of topiary, a mix of geometric shapes and animals including an ostrich, a giraffe, a camel, and even a unicorn.  When the estate was passed on to Alice Brayton from her father, she gave it the fitting name of ‘Green Animals’ in honor of all of Carreiro’s creations.  Now cared for by The Preservation Society of Newport County, all of Green Animals’ beloved occupants are still painstakingly maintained.


Eleanor the Elephant at Bentley Garden in Arizona,
Nancy Swanson, photographer
Topiary animals are popular in  private gardens as well.  At Bentley Garden in Arizona, several topiary animals serve both a decorative and utilitarian purpose—the latter as a barrier between the house and the road.  Citrus aurantium bushes were transformed into Eleanor the Elephant and Clyde the Camel.  The owner cited a visit to Peter the Great’s Summer Palace in Russia as the inspiration for these unique topiaries.  Joining Eleanor and Clyde are Fernando ze Bool, Berenstein Bear, Helen and Jill Javelina, and Petunia and Philip the Pigs, all made from oleander bushes.

View more topiary animals, shapes, and designs in the Collections Search Center.

The images above are from the Garden Club of America Collection at the Archives of American Gardens


Kayla Burns, Intern
Archives of American Gardens
Smithsonian Gardens

1 comment:

  1. I especially like the elephant....