Tree sculptors and leaf barbers have been demonstrating the craft of topiary since before the time of Christ. Requiring specific skills these creative gardeners impress the public by pollarding the natural world into unnatural shapes. There are plenty of examples of their handiwork on display in Portugal

The Romans were the first to document the fashion of cutting trees and shrubs into fantastical shapes. When not commanding troops abroad, Julius Caesar, who had a key role in the conquest of Portugal, was intrigued by topiary. It was introduced to him by Gaius Calvinus who spoke of ‘Topiarius’ the ornamental gardener. In turn Caesar and other wealthy Romans popularized topiary from Italy across the Empire. We can be almost certain that the gardens of stylish villas like the one in Milreu near Estoi were adorned with low parterre hedges, geometric orbs and botanic obelisks.

When the Roman Empire ended, so too did most aspects of pleasure gardening. People living in cities were sheltered behind walls for protection. They had other more serious issues to be concerned about and topiary would have been regarded as a frivolous waste of time. Only monks and nuns continued to trim their herbs and courtyard hedges. Topiary was mostly forgotten and its roots lay dormant for around 900 years.

Back in fashion
It was during the Renaissance in Italy that geometric topiary made a fashionable comeback. In France, the gardens of Versailles were an extravagance of symmetry, and in the Netherlands a new twist was introduced. As well as cones, globes and pyramids, gardeners manicured complicated figures such as animals, furniture, tunnels and pavilions. They trained hedges into labyrinths and mazes and across Europe many large estates copied the example. By the middle of the 17th century, the Dutch and especially their gardeners, had established a reputation for horticultural excellence.

It was around this time in Portugal that topiary emerged as a form of garden decoration. It progressed rapidly especially in the north of the country with wealthy families creating striking compositions to surround their homes. An unparalleled example is the Casa do Campo in Molares. It has an entrance way consisting of two monumental cylinders carved from Camelia japonica. The garden contains some of the oldest camellia trees in Portugal estimated to have been planted 250 years ago. It is one of the only places in the world where camellias have been used to form arches. Other unusual features created from vegetation include full-size summer houses and sun umbrellas cleverly cut to resemble their real-life counterparts. The gigantic scale of the topiary rivals the grandeur of the house with its Baroque architecture.

A similar Baroque masterpiece, the Solar de Mateus – pictured on bottles of rosé wine – has a garden filled with fresh foliage shaped into arches, scrolls and arabesques. A tunnel of cypress trees forms a grand walkway and from there long lines of hedges radiate into an open aspect.

Other examples where garden-artisans use their skills to prune vegetation into prescribed shapes are the Casa do Juste in Lousada, the Parque de Serralves in Porto and in the Algarve, Estoi’s Palace garden. Open to the wider public – even to non-residents – the gardens, which are arranged on three levels, resemble Versailles in style.

All of the previously described gardens are manicured to such an extent that they might not be to everybody’s taste. Famously, in a satirical essay written by Alexander Pope in the 18th century he longed for the picturesque rather than looking at fashionable gardens filled with topiary. He mocked the appearance of deformed figures adversely affected by the English rain! Picking a plant that suits the climate conditions is paramount.

Planting to prune
Holly, Yew, Boxwood, Hebe, Phillyrea and Pittosporum all lend themselves to topiary. Better still – here in Portugal for beginners looking for quick results, a pot containing Prunus lusitanica ‘Angustifolia’ – Portuguese laurel is a suitable starting point. It’s a tough plant with glossy dark-green leaves that does well in sun or part shade. Because of its compact growth it shapes neatly into topiary balls. Selected by the Royal Horticultural Society for an Award of Garden Merit, a row of Portuguese laurel bushes planted close together can easily be shaped into blobs to make what gardeners refer to fondly as a ‘blobbery’!

Words: Carolyn Kain

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