A Brief History of Topiary

It all started with the Romans…

This is for several noteworthy inventions - aqueducts, roads, the Julian calendar, and apparently, topiary. The ancient Romans tamed gardens just as they did lands and created art out of cutting shrubs.

Topiary grew (and declined) in popularity over the centuries and shaped gardens across Europe and beyond.

But there has to be more to the story than this, right?

Since we’ve seen an uptick in natural and artificial topiary gracing properties across the US, we wondered - what are the origins of topiary and how did it get so widespread?

You’ve got the questions and we’ve got the answers, so let’s dive in.

What Is Topiary?

faux topiaries

As we mentioned in our comprehensive guide on artificial topiary, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines topiary as “a practice or the art of training, cutting, and trimming trees or shrubs into odd or ornamental shapes and plants which have been shaped this way.

In essence, it’s the practice of shaping plants by trimming their leaves and branches. This technique creates decorative shapes and makes shrubs resemble animals, geometric figures, or mythical creatures.

Common topiary plants include boxwood, yew, and privet because they have small leaves and dense foliage.

Nowadays, many suppliers have begun selling artificial topiary. These are plant sculptures made from synthetic materials that mimic the look of a traditional topiary. Artificial topiary uses plastic, silk, or foam to achieve all the shapes. These artificial plants maintain their appearance without maintenance, making them a popular choice for indoors and outdoors.

The History of Topiary

But before start waxing poetic about artificial topiary, let’s reel it back to the beginning - the origins of topiary and its growth.

As we said, it all started with the Romans.

The Roman Times

Ancient Rome was the hallmark of many worldly innovations. It was also the birthplace of the European topiary, which dates back to this time. Writers credit Gaius Marius Calvinus, an acquaintance of Julius Ceasar, for introducing the topiary to Roman gardens. He was famous for creating elaborate figures of animals, obelisks, and inscriptions in his Tuscan villa.

Witnessing the glances these atriums got, wealthy Romans began adorning their own gardens with hedges and shrubs shaped into various forms, including their likeness.

This early form of topiary was a status symbol and marked the beginning of the art of topiarius.

Unfortunately, with the collapse of the Roman Empire, pleasure gardening and topiary fell out of practice. It remained dormant for a while before its resurgence in the 16th century.

The 16th and 17th Centuries

Topiary stood forgotten for over 9 centuries before its European revival in the 16th century. In other words, the art experienced a renaissance of its own. The formal gardens of Italy, France, and England embraced topiary as a way to add structure to their landscapes.

Like in Ancient Rome, the classes that benefitted from topiary were the elites. They used the shrubs on the parterres and terraces of gardens and in their cottages. This was also when botanists discovered that evergreens, particularly boxwood and yew, are the best choice for topiary. This opinion is still undefeated.

The Gardens of Versailles, under the direction of André Le Nôtre, are prime examples of the topiary’s grand influence during this period. The symmetry and precision of topiary reflected the Renaissance ideals of order and beauty.

The 18th Century

By the 18th century, topiary was ubiquitous among European gardens. This was as good as it was bad because it’s likely what caused interest to wane and the English Landscape Movement to take over. This movement favored less formal garden designs inspired by the picturesque landscapes of nature.

Slowly, the manicured and structured look of topiary became outdated. During this period, topiary was laughed out of English gardens following Alexander Pope’s satirical essay “Verdant Sculpture”. Then, it went out of style again.

But although the art fell from grace in aristocratic circles, small villages still practiced it in their own gardens.

The 19th Century 

In the 1800s, topiary saw a revival once again, particularly in England and the United States. The Victorian era’s fascination with elaborate gardens brought topiary back into the people’s favor. The English rediscovered the charm of cottage gardens and included topiary in their gardens again, leaving it untouched until the end of the century.

At that time, there was a considerable American community in England. Influenced by the English obsession, they ceated an Anglo-American society in Worcestershire and displayed topiary as a notable cultural feature.

This admiration reached home and topiary came into favor with the Colonial Revival gardens and the American Renaissance. This renaissance also sprouted the topiary maze at the Governor’s Palace at Colonial Williamsburg.

The 20th Century

Then, in came Walt Disney.

Disneyland may not have been on your cards for the history of topiary, but Walt Disney helped topiary art make strides. Thanks to him, topiary entered the mainstream. The animator recreated his cartoon characters using shrubs throughout his parks using steel wire frames through which the plants grew.

Disney then trademarked its characters and developed portable topiaries with those steel wires.

The introduction of wire frames allowed gardeners and topiarists to create more complex shapes. In turn, this made topiary more accessible and varied. What’s more, the frames also served as supports and cutting guides.

This ease of use contributed to more Americans including topiary in their homes, making it a staple American art form.

What’s Happening Today?

artificial topiary shrubs

Today, topiary thrives as both an art form and a gardening practice. Hobbyists and professional landscapers alike enjoy seeing how far the art can go.

Advances in horticulture have expanded the possibilities of topiary, making it easier to create and maintain them.

But nowadays, besides traditional live topiary, artificial topiary has gained significant popularity. With days getting busier, faux topiary is a low-maintenance alternative that retains its shape year-round. In turn, this makes it an excellent choice for commercial spaces, urban environments, and residences.

Regardless of whether it’s real or artificial, topiary continues to add sophistication to our surroundings, wherever we are.