Topiary is not just stand-alone figures or geometric hedges – it covers three of the key features of formal gardens: knot gardens, parterres and mazes.
Topiary – Knot Gardens
A knot garden is: ‘a garden of very formal square design, consisting of a variety of aromatic plants and culinary herbs.’ When they first appeared – in Renaissance Italy – it was simply a formal planting of herbs, including Lavender and Rosemary, but Box edging was soon added to better delineate the geometric patterns. Strictly speaking, once a knot garden has Box edging, it becomes a Parterre, though the term ‘Parterre’ is generally reserved for the grand, large-scale displays found in palaces and stately homes…
Topiary – Parterres
Actually, Parterres are more than just Box-edged knot gardens on steroids. They also incorporate ideas developed in 16th century Italy for: “beautifully ornate clipped box hedges swirling around the garden statues and individual topiaries in mirrored patterns or geometric designs.” In a Parterre, therefore, the hedging and floral elements are of equal importance. And more often than not, the hedging plant of choice was, and is, Box.
Perhaps the Parterres that best demonstrate the possibilities of grand-scale gardening are those at Versailles. By the time (mid 16th century) Louis XIV was cracking the whip on one of the great vanity projects, France was already in love with Box hedging – high, low and all points in-between. Le Notre’s plans for Versailles therefore included massive clipped Box edged parterres and, literally, miles of Box hedging.
Of course, if you let the Box grow it will soon be tall enough to obscure the view and while the first ‘tall hedge’ examples were never intended to be labyrinths, the maze had been born…
Topiary – Mazes
So the maze evolved from these earlier formal constructions and although the Normans had introduced maze-like patterns of clipped plants, the very first, true how-do-I-get-out-of-here hedge maze to appear in England was planted by Henry Wise and George London at Hampton Court Palace between 1689 and 1695 to mark the coronation of William of Orange. And that is the maze that befuddles thousands of visitors to this day. While it is probably planted over the site of Wosley’s original parterre, there is nothing Tudor about it. Wise and London planted it exclusively with Hornbeam but many different plants, including Beech and Yew, have been used since then to effect repairs and add additional twists and turns.
And while the plants used at Hampton Court are popular choices, the maze at Glendurgan Garden, Cornwall (pictured above), was planted in 1833 with Cherry Laurel – of all the suitable maze hedge plants, it is the fastest growing.