|Species of Topiary|
In the main we employ three principal plant species in the creation of the Topiary specimens that we supply at Oxford Planters. These are Box, Bay and Yew, although we also stock some examples grown from Holly. This page supplies some additional information about these species and their characteristics.
Box - Buxus sempervirens
Yew - Taxus baccata
Bay - Laurus nobilis
Holly - Ilex aquifolium
From the Buxaceae family, true Box is a relatively small evergreen tree, slow growing and long lived. Although growing to a maximum height in the wild of about 9m, it is rarely seen above a handful of feet in the garden. Common Box is a much more vigorous shrub or small tree with a bushy, upright form. The small rounded leaves are glossy and vary in colour from a dark green to a rich golden colour. Its dense form makes it perfect for Topiary and hedging, and it can be clipped close to create sharp-edged and solid shapes. Dwarf forms are best suited to the low hedging required for knot gardens or parterre.
The plant prefers a chalky or limestone soil, and is often found in association with Beech. It is truly native to only a few locations in Southern England, but is widely distributed throughout Southern Europe, North Africa and Western Asia.
The tree bears small white flowers in early spring, from April to May, and these develop into tight pods containing small black seeds. The pods rupture, propelling the seeds up to three metres away from the parent. New plants can be readily grown from these seeds, or by potting up four-inch summer cuttings and placing within a cold frame.
Box is a yellow and very dense wood and, before the advent of plastic, was commonly used for chess pieces, rulers and pencil cases. It is still popular with craftsmen for carving, turnery, marquetry and inlay work, and is also used for manufacturing the heads of wooden mallets.
The Yew comes from the family Taxaceae. The tree is a medium sized evergreen with dark green foliage that carries characteristic red fleshy berries (called arils) around a single seed. Plants are either male or female, and only the latter will carry these distinctive berries. A mature tree will grow to a height of 15 - 28 m and can live for 2000 years or more. Not especially fussy about soil type or air quality, although does seem to grow best on well-drained limestone or chalk. When occurring naturally, the tree is often found in company with Oak, and is common throughout Britain and Ireland, most of Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa.
The tree bears small, inconspicuous flowers during March and April. These develop into the familiar red-cloaked aril fruiting bodies by October, and then remain on the tree over winter, as long as the birds let them! Propagation from late summer cuttings is simplest, since the seeds lie dormant for upwards of 18 months and are then difficult to germinate.
The wood of the Yew is dark brown and very hardwearing and was once used extensively for tool handles, furniture and as a veneer. However, its most celebrated use was in the manufacture of the famous English and Welsh longbows of the middle ages, scourge of the flower of French chivalry.
There are several common varieties, aside from Taxus baccata. The Irish Yew, Taxus baccata Fastigiate, is more upright and lends itself well to Cone-shaped Topiary. Others, such as Elegantissima, have rich golden coloured leaves.
It should be noted that all parts of the tree, including the seed, are poisonous to man except, perhaps surprisingly, the fleshy red part of the aril. Birds feed on the aril during the winter and leave the poisonous seeds behind, thereby distributing them widely.
The Bay Laurel is one of the oldest shrubs known in cultivation, and it was the leaves from this tree that were draped around the heads of Greek athletes in ancient times. It can grow to 12m in height if left unchecked, and will fill out to as much as 10m in diameter. It is, however, well suited to clipping and can be kept to any height and width if suitable pruning is carried out, so it is well suited to Topiary. It is especially relevant to the herb garden, where the Bay can act both as a centerpiece and also a valuable culinary ingredient.
During the first few years the young leaves can be harvested in moderate amounts for use as a herb in stews and other meat dishes. During this period it should also be fed and watered regularly, but once established will be relatively maintenance free. Beware, however, as the roots are shallow and can be quite easily damaged by over ambitious weeding.
The Bay Laurel can be propagated in a variety of ways, including layering, sowing seeds and taking cuttings. Yellowish flowers appear in the spring and are followed by glossy black berries – but only on female plants. Seeds should be sown into moist compost in the spring and placed in the dark, where they may take up to three months to germinate – if at all. Cuttings taken in late summer to early autumn may be simpler, but still not guaranteed to work, since they may take upwards of a year to root properly. Layering is easiest. In the spring, simply bend a stem down until it touches the ground, make a small cut where the wood touches the soil, secure with wire, cover it with soil, water and leave. Fresh shoots should appear within the year.
Young plants are quite tender, and can be damaged by frost. Even mature specimens may need protection from severe cold, and may benefit from being brought indoors or draped at night if scorched leaves are to be avoided.
The Common Holy, Ilex aquifolium, requires little introduction. It is familiar to everyone, not least for its central role in Yuletide festivities each year. The glossy, sharply spiked dark green leaves and red berries adorn Christmas cards, cakes and puddings, but there are many other varieties that are available to gardeners, including variegated and non-spiky types that all lend themselves well to hedging and Topiary applications.
Like other plants selected for this purpose, the Holly is slow growing, but very tolerant of heavy and regular pruning. It will also grow well in shade, although variegated varieties should be offered more direct sunlight if they are not to lose their patterning (If all-green leaves do appear, pinch them out). Remember that Hollies are either male or female, and one of each will be required if the characteristic red berries are to be enjoyed.
Ilex species are not especially fussy about soil types and can be propagated from cuttings taken in the autumn.