Plant People

San Diego Botanic Garden

Just before the killer cold snap last January I had managed to prune my torch bougainvillea into a heart shape topiary.  It made me smile and I eagerly looked forward to it as part of the landscape for a Valentine celebration in February.  Then nature changed my plans and the shape was lost in the freeze damage.  A topiary is a fanciful thing,  it isn’t a garden style that appeals to everyone.  It is a living work of art that requires a vision, patience and an artist using the medium of plants.

Descriptions of  Roman gardens with  cypress trees cut into shapes of sailing ships and hunting scenes as early as 75 AD establish topiary an ancient art.  The 17th century is  considered the pinnacle of topiary art.  Louis the XV hosted a “Ball of the Clipped Yew Trees” at Versailles in 1745 celebrating his son’s wedding”  (The Gardener’s Wise Words . . .R. Binney) For this fancy dress party the King dressed as a clipped yew.  (Lady Gaga take note)

Topiary has long been done in shrubs, trees and vines, with yews, boxwood and ivy as favorite mediums for these shapes.  As garden styles became less formal topiary lost its popularity. Today amusement parks sculpt their greenery into geometric or fanciful shapes.  Corporate logos are shaped in shrubbery in the entry ways of  company headquarters.

In the San Diego Botanic Garden topiary is in fashion with succulents as the artist medium. During my recent visit there I met Margaret Jones, who describes herself as the “fashion maven of the well dressed topiaries of the succulent garden.”  A garden volunteer she works with her pallet of plants creating plant people modeled on human form.

A beautiful garden is always in transition and plant sculpture vividly demonstrates this.  Working on steel forms covered with sphagnum moss, succulent starts are pushed into the frame to take root and grow to cover the entire structure.  Margaret does this, working with a small plastic container  hung around her neck.  She works carefully with her long handled tweezers easing the pieces into place.    The artist’s work requires patience as the beginnings can be a bit sparse.  Unlike working with paint on a canvas where the artist completes the work, here nature will control the final product.  Watering, warm weather and a bit of luck will in time create the masterpiece.

Each of the plant people has two garden volunteers working to keep them well dressed.   Pat Hammer is director of Operations for SDBG and is responsible for bringing the topiaries to SDBG.  Originally they were all covered with ivy.  Now the clothing fashion is changing to succulents.

The clay masks are modeled on the human faces of garden luminaries.  The man with the vest is Don Walker who started the San Diego Horticultural Society.  The hostess serving tea is his wife,  Dorthea Walker.  The three musicians are the faces of three of the nursery workers of Weidner’s Nursery, a well loved destination of local residents.

The Don Walker topiary was recently replanted and has the appearance of a fresh haircut but his head will be full and curly as the little plants grow.  One of the musicians sports sleeves of Dudleya in a spiky blue tone.

During this visit the most beautiful plant person represents Evelyn Cisneros the captivating prima ballerina of the San Francisco Ballet.  This masterpiece of perfect succulents is the work of Margaret and has had a year to mature.  The results are magical.

Her skirt is a floral work of echeveria and will bloom in purple flowers.  Her hair is sedum, as is the toe of her ballet slipper.  Elfin Thyme is covering the bodice and her shoulders are ruffled with succulents.  Creative use of many plants form her intricate detail: hair of sedum, a string of succulent pearls around her neck, she holds a nosegay in one hand, a ring and a bracelet of plants on the other.

Now and then the clothing needs a trim, a patch and a reweaving as the plants naturally grow, bloom and die.  This is a temporary splendor changing each day.  But artistic volunteers will redesign and grow a new outfit for all of us to enjoy.

There is no shortage of magnificent plant specimens to enjoy at the SDBG and those who enjoy a more natural garden style will find plenty to admire.  But if when you turn a corner and spy a well dressed topiary perhaps you will smile and enjoy this temporary art of ornamental gardening.

Originally published in Roots & Shoots, Maricopa Master Gardening Newsletter @

Also published in Central Spine, newsletter of the AZ Cactus and Succulent Society  @

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