Many visitors to the Herbal Touch gardens have been asking me "What are the topiary trees featured in the home and garden magazines?" The answer more often than not is rosemary, myrtle and sometimes bay. All three are great herbs, all worth the special effort to bring indoors for the winter season and an exciting way to extend the herb gardening season.
Topiaries are regaining their popularity in the world of gardening. They can be used outside in the summer as a feature in the court yard, an accent in the garden or as a warm welcome at a house entrance. Brought inside they are very decorative on a mantle or as a grouping in a basket on a holiday table-an instant centrepiece.
My favourite topiary herb is the German Myrtle (Myrtus Communis Microphylla). It has small shiny dark green leaves and fragrant white flowers, followed by a blue berry. (Once our myrtle had so many berries, visitors thought that it was a blueberry bush).
Myrtle is the herb of fertility and has been traditionally used at weddings for centuries. Lithuanians, Latvians, Ukrainians and Germans use a sprig of myrtle in their bridal veil or wedding bouquets. With the brides permission I often place a sprig in the groom's boutonniere.
I was recently told a charming story of an old fashioned Ukrainian Wedding. The ladies all meet at the bride's house the evening before the wedding. Everyone brings a sprig of their myrtle and presents them to the bride's mother. She then weaves them into a wreath that the bride wears under her bridal veil.
Our largest myrtle (5.5 feet high) is brought indoors before the first frost and placed in my front shop window. Here it becomes my Christmas tree. It is decked out with garlands of globe amaranth, little "Tussie Mussies" made of herbs and small candles. The smaller myrtles that I have clipped into Topiaries are placed in the kitchen window and for special occasions, are grouped together in a willow basket and used as a centrepiece on the dining room table. Ribbons, bows, and small pearl garlands transform the myrtle topiaries into an enchanting forest where the "flower fairies" can enjoy their pleasure.
Rosemary also makes a great topiary. There are many varieties but Rosemary Officinalis is the one I prefer. Rosemary may be a little more difficult to winter; they don't like to be too hot or dry. Attempts are being made to discover a hardy variety.
Rosemary flavours beef, pork, lamb, vegetables, biscuits, breads, butters and is used in potpourris, and bath waters. It is known as the herb of remembrance so if your memory is slipping you might want to try some rosemary in your tea. Rosemary has not only a fantastic flavour and fragrance, but also a beautiful green which looks good decorated for festive occasions.
Hungarians use rosemary at weddings. A small sprig is tied with a ribbon and used as a favour at the dinner reception, so each guest will remember the special day. I have rosemary formed into the shape of a heart, and for special occasions, just a simple ribbon tied to the side is pretty.
Another excellent herb is the bay (Laurus Nobilis). Like myrtle and rosemary it is native to the Mediterranean where it grows into a large tree. Here, it becomes a potted tree that is a great feature in the centre of our courtyard. We have had this bay tree for 15 years and enjoy the fresh, sweet flavour that a just-picked bay leaf adds to soup, stew, and home made tomato sauce. When you purchase a bay tree expect to pay a little more because it is difficult to propagate.
Bay topiaries are very stately and do their jobs as sentries in the house or garden. The ancient Romans and Greeks placed bay laurel wreaths on the heads of their Olympic champions. Why not hang wreaths made of bay laurel on your kitchen wall to highlight the greatness of the chef of the house? Gilded bay leaves are a nice accent to any wreath or swag.
There is something special during the long winter months to have fresh rosemary and bay as handy as a nearby window sill to add that special flavour to cooking that only fresh herbs can.
Topiary, the art of clipping, is one of the oldest forms of garden decorating. It refers to any plant that has been clipped, trained or manipulated into a form. There are several good reference books on the subject, but here are a few general guidelines.
To make a topiary choose a herb with a straight centre stem. It is important to add a bamboo stake. For a standard single ball topiary remove two thirds of the bottom branches. When the top one third of the herb starts to grow, clip into the desired shape. You may want to try multiple ball topiaries, cone shapes, or even a heart shape. Have some fun with herbs!
Written by Marilyn Edmison -Driedger. Zone 6a in Southwestern Ontario Canada
E-mail: The Herbal Touch