Which trees and shrubs can be used for topiary?
Bay Laurel (Laurus Nobilis)
This sun-loving tree is sometimes called “Sweet Bay” and the leaves are used in cooking. It was also the plant that formed the laurel wreaths, which were hung around the necks of champions in the ancient world, and gives rise to our modern term laureate as in Poet Laureate. Bay Trees are often grown as standards and kept in pots but they can also be given a variety of shapes. A traditional feature is to form spiral stems by twisting the trunk around a pole as the plant grows.
Beech (Fagus Slyvatica)
Beech is principally used for medium to high hedging where it can provide a dense deciduous mass. Don’t forget that Beech trees in the natural habitat can grow to fifty feet or more so decide on the height of your hedge early on and cut the tops off just below the height you eventually require! In winter the leaves stay on the branches but turn a romantic rusty gold color. Beech can take a few years to establish before anything like recognizable hedge growth appears so don’t panic.
This is the king of small to medium sized topiary. There are many varieties of Box including variegated forms. The standard variety is the most hardy. There is also a dwarf variety, (Buxus Suffruticosa) which will happily live at six inches high and is useful for box edging of beds. You can use the larger ordinary variety for this purpose but be prepared to clip more often. Balls, spirals and all geometric shapes look wonderful in Box but you can have chickens, ducks, teddy bears and Mickey Mouse if you want. Don’t clip when there is a likelihood of frost and although they are drought tolerant they still need some watering, especially in pots as the sad brown specimens outside some restaurants attest.
Particularly lend themselves to standards.
Useful for informal low hedging.
Euonymus (Euonymus Japonicus)
Useful for small to medium sized hedges but can need a lot of maintenance in the growing season.
Hawthorn (Crataegus Monogyna)
This is often seen as hedging around farmer’s fields as it is very hardy. Good for areas, which require no one or beast to pass through but wear suitable gloves when clipping as the thorns are sharp.
Holly (Ilex Auquifolium)
Holly is a slow growing evergreen used for hedges of medium to high height but can also be used for standards or any other specimen shape. When I say slow growing I mean sloooow growing. Probably the slowest of all when you are trying to grow a hedge.
Hornbeam (Carpinus Betulus)
A good alternative to Beech for small to medium height deciduous hedging where you have a polluted atmosphere or alkaline soils.
Ivy (Hedera Helix)
Used in moss topiary usually for small scale pieces but has been used on a large scale where several plants are used. Beware. Once it is fully established it will take dynamite to remove it if left to get overgrown.
Juniper (Juniperus Communis)
Juniper is one of a wide variety of bushy conifers with a bluish tinge and useful for medium to high hedges and some specimens.
Laurel (Prunus Laurocerasus ‘Rotundifolia’)
Good for making medium sized hedges or abstract specimens although its large leaves need to be accommodated in the design and can look unsightly if the leaves are cut in half by shears or clippers.
Used for low informal hedges in herb gardens or general edging.
Leyland Cypress (Cupressocyparis Leylandii)
This beast is included only because it can make a decent hedge if cut at the right time although it is still prone to going brown at the base. Most used as a windbreak until a formal garden has time to mature and then is removed. Needs clipping the year after planting onwards otherwise you will get a nine foot hedge with a three foot gap at its base.
Lonicera Nitida (Lonicera)
Useful for small specimens and small to medium sized hedges but will require a lot of clipping to keep its shape once mature. Note: cats like the smell and often have a roll in it.
Myrtle (Myrtus Communis)
Useful for low informal hedges.
Olive (Olea Europaea)
Single tree specimens such as standards but is not very tolerant of cold weather especially when young.
Useful for small to medium sized informal hedges.
Privet (Ligustrum Ovalifolium)
Privet is a traditional plant for a garden hedge in Britain and has been used to great effect in American specimen topiary, such as at Disneyland. The Italian small leaved varieties are better for achieving more formal topiary but are much slower growing. Good alternative to Box where there is a possibility of Box Blight.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus Officinalis)
Useful for informal hedges but when mature its stems can hold its own weight to form standards, etc.
Thuja (Thuja Plicata Atrovirens)
Thuja, sometimes know as the Western Red Cedar, is a wind tolerant conifer suitable for high hedging.
Yew (Taxus Baccata)
Yew is the king of large topiary. It can make evergreen hedges ten feet high and five feet thick, as square as you like or with any abstract curve you can imagine. It is relatively slow growing but has the ability to grow back no matter how much you chop off and can grow out from the trunk even after severe pruning. It can also live a thousand years if you are planning your legacy.
In “How to do Topiary: A beginner’s guide” I have written a whole chapter on these plants and when to prune or shape them and what they can be used for. Follow this link for Amazon UK. Follow this link for Amazon USA