Be it a simple ball or cube, or an intricate tiger or motor car, a sculpted tree or hedge grabs your attention. The (very old) art form of topiary has enjoyed something of a resurgence during the past century, and, though crafting representational forms is an acquired skill, you can make simple shapes if you merely choose the right tree or bush.
One may define Topiary as the art of sculpting with plants and trees. But just as the sculptor requires the right type of marble or other material, so too does the topiarist need a ’sculptable’ member of the Plant Kingdom.
Most are not sculptable at all while a few are more sculptable than some others. The art and technique of this nature-sculpting involves patient, continual, and progressive training, pruning, and clipping of the subject shrub or tree.
Though topiary is very much an ‘in thing’ in the British Isles and has been so for decades, it comes down to us from the classical world. Reputedly, the ancient Greeks enjoyed making simple forms and shapes with plant life. You too could start off by making simple spherical and conical forms and other geometric shapes before proceeding to more ambitious ‘tree sculptures.’
We do know that topiary took off in Rome during the rule of Augustus Caesar. One Cneius Matius, a horticulturist friend of Julius Caesar and his adopted son Octavian, later Augustus, played the major role in popularising this art form. Quite possibly this art arrived on Anglo-Saxon shores after the Roman conquests during the reign of Claudius Caesar.
Topiary probably reached its high water mark in Great Britain at the close of the Seventeenth Century. During the Tudor and Stuart Periods, hedge mazes and knot gardens, which are advanced forms of topiary, were all the rage in aristocratic gardens.
Since the anti-topiary 1740s, this gardener’s art form has had its ups and downs in the British Isles as well as in other European countries. Today, its foremost practitioners are the Dutch, French, Italians, Americans, and – of course – the British.
Some British nurseries even have a separate department for topiary plants, and a few specialise in hedging and topiary. That topiary has made a comeback and is here to stay can be gauged from the moderate but consistent demand for ‘artificial topiary’.
Ready-to-go boxwood topiaries are – of course – also available. As for the budding topiarist, they can choose from a variety of topiary shears and pruners, and instructional books.
The Different ’Sculpting Materials’
Which ’sculpting material’ should he/she choose, though? In general, the bush or tree should be evergreen, leaves should be on the small side or be scale-like or needle-like, the bush or tree should exhibit density of branching and density of foliage, and have a ‘tight’ or non-sprawling habit.
Over and above that, you need to choose the ‘material’ from the Plant Kingdom that is right for your planned topiary subject. As an obvious example, some bushes lend themselves to shorter, flatter and longer shapes; others to tall and narrow forms. We assist you in selecting the precise tree or bush for the particular garden shape you have in mind.
Here is a Super Seven list of the best topiary trees and bushes in an American style countdown. The higher ranked genera include differentiations between suitable varieties.
1. Common Yew or Taxus baccata, and other Yews
Yews rank at Number One because they are tried and tested topiary media for centuries, are still going strong, and possess all the desirable qualities of topiary plants, to which they even add a few of their own.
A Yew is very long lived and so can be a multi-generational heritage, it grows from green wood but also regenerates from brown wood, and its dense foliage typically comprises of needle-like leaves with shades varying from yellow-gold to sparkling, brilliant green.
Unfortunately, among all the merits, there is a (big) fly in the ointment. These plants are very toxic to the extent that even touching them can cause a skin reaction. Ingesting any part is very poisonous and so it is not recommended for households with pets and small children.
Though a good few Taxus varieties, particularly T. baccata cultivars, make excellent topiary bushes, it is difficult to look beyond T. baccata or Common Yew because of its extraordinary qualities. Where Taxus and Yews are the subject, the varieties are only interesting ‘nice to haves’ for something a little different; for serious topiary it is almost all about Common Yew. Its somewhat springy branches can take tough training just as well as they can withstand pruning and clipping, as the bush is shaped into whatever whimsical shape.
To explain it thus, if a goodly number Thuja varieties are as if made to order for specific shapes, then Common Yew is the lump of clay or the piece of Parian that can reliably be sculpted into anything at all (provided the topiarist is a master). Just as topiary tyros ought to start with Thuja, Topiary’s Rodins and Michelangelos tend to opt for T. baccata.
Besides being long lived, for a bush or a hedge, Common Yew is massive, as it can spread to eight metres or more and rise to more than twelve metres with a height of ten being common.
If you’d like to build a Stuart Period maze over the next several years, get yourself a few dozen Common Yews.
- T. baccata ‘Repens aurea’: Very small sizes, knot gardens
- Taxus x media ‘Densiformis’: Small sizes, ovoid forms, horizontally elongated shapes
- T. baccata ‘Standishii’: Small sizes, (mini) spires, spirals
- T. baccata ‘Semperaurea’: Medium sizes, hexahedrons, representational shapes
- Taxus x media ‘Hicksii’: Large sizes, mazes, representational shapes
- T. baccata ‘Fastigiata’ and ‘Fastigiata Aurea’ : Large sizes, columns, obelisks, spirals
- T. baccata: Ultra-large sizes, high mazes, representational shapes, anything at all
2. Thuja Varieties (or Arborvitae aka ‘Cedars’)
Thuja (or Arborvita, incorrectly called ‘Cedar’) varieties fully deserve their lofty ranking because they are ready-made topiaries direct from Mother Nature’s nursery.
Decide on the shape(s) you want, choose the appropriate Thuja cultivar(s), and . . . grab a Guinness and lie back – it’ll work out by itself. Though – of course – it won’t quite pan out that way, there’s more than a grain of truth to the exaggeration.
Particular Thuja grow so naturally into particular shapes that all you need to do is help them along without much planning or clipping – just ideal for the ‘One-Minute Gardener.’
Thuja varieties also possess all the other essentials that make a plant an excellent medium for topiary, from being evergreen to so cold-hardy that some are good for growing in Siberia!
Because of the extraordinary abundance of Thuja varieties that are great for topiary, we list each one’s name along with only one shape. Obviously, a variety that is perfect for one shape will also be very good for closely-related forms so we mention one alternate in parens for each variety.
It must be mentioned that it would not be reasonable if one were to try to work a Thuja variety into a shape that is in strong conflict with its natural form and habit as this would be working against Nature.
Finally, bear in mind that it’s not only about shapes – if one Thuja variety has stunning lime-green foliage, another has equally stunning golden foliage, and yet others will turn flaming orange or bronze-purple in autumn.
All the following are T. occidentalis or T. plicata varieties.
- ‘Danica’: Very small sizes, spheres (and ovoids)
- ‘Amber Glow’: Very small sizes, ovoids (and spheres)
- ‘Tater Tot’: Very small sizes, spheres (and ovoids)
- ‘Mr. Bowling Ball’: Small sizes, spheres (and ovoids)
- ‘Stoneham Gold’: Medium sizes, cones (and columns)
- ‘Smaragd’: Medium sizes, spires (and spirals)
- ‘Rheingold’: Medium sizes, ovoids (and boxes)
- ‘North Pole’: Medium sizes, spires (and columns)
- ‘Fluffy’: Medium sizes, cones (and pyramids)
- ‘Janed Gold’: Large sizes, cones (and columns)
- ‘Polar Gold’: Large sizes, cones (and columns)
- ‘Degroot’s Spire’: Very large sizes, spires (and spirals)
- T. occidentalis: Very large sizes, spires (and columns)
- ‘Irish Gold’: Very large sizes, cones (and pyramids)
- T. plicata: Ultra-large sizes, narrow pyramids (and columns)
- ‘Aurea’: Ultra-large sizes, cones (and cylinders)
- ‘Green Giant’: Ultra-large sizes, cones (and pyramids)
3. Privet – Various Ligustrum varieties
Privet is virtually synonymous with hedging in view of the ubiquity of privet hedges and because – rightly or wrongly – it is the default choice for hedging and, consequently, simple topiary shapes.
Privets are varieties of the Ligustrum genus. Where topiary is concerned one may divide Privets into three broad categories: L. Ovalifolium and its cultivars, L. japonicum and its cultivars, and the rest and remainder. The main difference is that L. japonicum and its cultivars have stiff, ‘springy’ branches compared to L. Ovalifolium and its cultivars, and the former’s leaves are rounded, waxy and wavy compared to the more ‘normal’ leaves of L.
Ovalifolium and cultivars. L. Ovalifolium varieties have a moderate growth rate while L. japonicum varieties grow more slowly. Both species and their respective cultivars are as tough as nails, and tolerate both, adverse soil conditions and heavy pruning and trimming. Most of them are just hardy enough for almost the entire United Kingdom at hardiness H5.
The downsides are that they are fairly toxic plants that are not at all a good choice for households with small children and pets, and the small summer flowers have an unpleasant scent. On the other hand, Ligustrum varieties offer just about the widest choice in foliage type and foliage colouration among topiary plants.
They are most suitable for hedging, hexahedrons, cubes, and also curved shapes. Finally, one of the best privets for intricate topiary comes from the ‘rest and remainder’ of Ligustrum species. This is slow-growing L. Delavayanum which is a top choice for representational topiary.
Best for: L. japonicum ‘Rotundifolium’: Small sizes, upright ovoids, elongated shapes; L. ovalifolium: Medium sizes, hexahedral shapes, cubes, curved shapes; L. japonicum: Medium sizes, hexahedral shapes, cubes, curved shapes; L. Delavayanum: representational topiary
For out of the ordinary ‘coloured’ topiary, consider these colourful varieties: L. ovalifolium ‘Aureum’, L. ovalifolium ‘Argenteum’, L. japonicum ‘Variegatum’, L. ibota ‘Musli’, and L. undulatum ‘Lemon and Lime Clippers’.
4. ‘Japanese Hollies’ – Ilex crenata varieties
Ilex crenata cultivars vary quite widely in height and spread, and even in habit and form. But before we get to those, let’s look at what they have in common.
To begin with, they possess all the desirable qualities of a topiary medium and are super-hardy, being good down to Zone H6. An undesirable attribute they also share is their mild toxicity. Quite possibly you may be affected by itching or a skin allergy after handling these plants.
A few I. crenata cultivars are becoming the go-to alternatives to Box Wood, especially for shaped hedging. Japanese Hollies are sometimes attacked by aphids and scale but, unlike the ravages being wreaked on Box Wood, these plants’ infestations are episodic.
I. crenata typically reaches about four metres with a spread of about a metre while cultivar ‘Convexa’ grows to about two metres with a spread of about one.
In between, rising to about three metres is cultivar ‘Fastigiata’ with its name indicating its fastigiate habit. All three have tiny, glossy leaves, which is another tick mark for a topiary plant.
All three varieties can bear small white flowers in the summer and black berries in autumn but the topiarist will not be interested in blooms and berries interfering with his geometric shapes.
Best for: I. crenata: Large sizes, mazes, tall hedging, geometrical shapes; ‘Fastigiata’: Medium sizes, columns, cylinders, obelisks; ‘Convexa’: Small sizes, low hedging, boxes, curved shapes.
5. Honeysuckle – Lonicera
Lonicera ligustrina var. pileata or Box-Leaved Honeysuckle and Lonicera ligustrina var. yunnanensis or Wilson’s Honeysuckle are ideally suited to topiary. And so much so that perhaps these excellent sculpting plants should rank higher but they are simply not as tried and tested as those ranked above them.
All the attributes necessary for a first-class topiary plant are found in spades in these two Lonicera varieties, and they are also fully hardy – Zone H6. They are also tough plants that are tolerant of severe clipping. All this means that you can get ambitious with Lonicera Honeysuckle.
L. ligustrina var. yunnanensis typically reaches dimensions of 3.5 by 3 metres while L. ligustrina var. pileata is more compact and more ‘horizontal’ at about 0.75 by 2 metres. Topiarists may or may not want the added colour of the small summer flowers and autumn berries but the bright green foliage is something they will go for.
If one side or end of a topiary Lonicera is not severely trimmed, it will produce flowers.
Best for: Medium sizes, intricate shapes, representational forms.
6. ‘Alberta Spruces’ – Picea glauca varieties
Alberta Spruces, varieties of Picea glauca, are probably the up-and-comers in the Topiary Sweepstakes.
As Northern Spruces they are super-hardy. The two cultivars that we recommend are P. glauca var. albertiana ‘Conica’ and P. glauca var. albertiana ‘Alberta Globe’. Both have stiff, needle-like foliage that grows very densely and rather slowly. And they bring that bonus typical of many spruces: invigouratingly fresh-scented foliage.
What these two cultivars markedly differ in are their respective sizes and natural shapes.
‘Conica’ typically attains a height of two-plus metres and a spread of about one, and makes a natural – surprise! – conical form.
‘Alberta Globe’ grows to a little under one metre in diameter – and we hardly need to spell out its natural shape. If you’re going for cones and spheres, you will not need to exert yourself much with these choices.
Look for other Picea varieties that make good topiary media. You can be one of the early adopters of P. glauca ‘Echiniformis’, P. glauca ‘Arneson’s Blue Variegated’, and P. pungens (Glauca Group) ‘Koster’.
Best for: ‘Conica’: Medium sizes, cones, pyramids, spirals; ‘Alberta Globe’: Small sizes, balls, ovoids, curved shapes.
7. Wall Germander and Hybrid Germander – Teucrium varieties
Fully hardy Wall Germander, Teucrium chamaedrys L., should not be confused with tender Bush Germander which is a top choice for good-sized topiary ‘statutary’ projects.
Unfortunately, it is hardy only to Zone H3 whereas Wall Germander is hardy to H6. This doesn’t mean that the latter should be perceived as a ‘lesser Germander’ for it has its own forte, as does close relative Teucrium × lucidrys or Hybrid Germander which is hardy to Zone H4.
They have a particularly dense bushy habit and this attribute combined with the small leaves and their rich deep hue make them great topiary plants. Both plants emit a pleasant crisp aroma, especially when brushed against, adding to their happy attributes.
They grow to only about 30 centimeters and have a similar spread, making them ideal for low designs, including knot gardens, which feature low-slung but long, interwoven, abstract patterns.
Best for: Small sizes, low intricate designs, serpentine shapes, knot gardens
Honourable Mention: Box Wood – Buxus varieties
Trusty old Box Wood, this usually being Buxus sempervirens, Buxus microphylla, or one or another of their various cultivars, closes our list just outside the Super Seven.
Box Wood would have ranked, and high at that, but over the past several years box blight and box tree caterpillar have been on a cross-country rampage, laying waste to Box in ever-increasing regions in the UK. Therefore, even though Box Wood is one of the most tried and true topiary media, it is probably not a very good choice to begin a new topiary project because, like as not, you’ll be waging a virtually unwinnable, never-ending battle with box blight, box tree caterpillar, or both.
In addition, Box varieties are increasingly being affected by other pests and diseases such as Fluted Scale and Volutella blight. Caveats done, as the long-term traditional automatic pick for hedging and medium-sized topiary as well as being a great option for beginners, Box deserves to be listed with an honourable mention.
Best for: Medium sizes, balls, cubes and representational shapes.