In winter, a garden is stripped back to its bones. Its structure is laid bare with all its strengths and weaknesses revealed. Much of the form of the garden which is visible in winter comes from the hard elements – the walls and the paths. But, the evergreens are an essential part of the composition. This may be the one appropriate use of the term ‘architectural plant’: hedges are green walls; topiary can be columns and sculptures. I like the idea that the columns of temples were inspired by tree trunks and trees can be used to mimic columns.
Buxus sempervirens, Box ever-living, is a winter star. Box hedges define parterres and their lines are clearer in winter. I love them even more when they are frosted, or better still, frosted having first been draped in silk by industrious spiders. The hoar frost clings to the strands in jagged crystals and melts to nothing with the first sun. The hedges provide shelter which can leave the ground at their bases free from frost. They cast shadows which prolong the frost within them, creating clear lines of bare dark soil and white crystals. The pattern plays out during the day, a visible testimony to the passage of time.
In summer, Box has that smell. It is the smell of itself, certainly, but a self which belongs to a family of scents which includes Ruta graveolens, Rue, and Ficus carica, Fig. They are at once green, woody, and dry-spicy. They are complex, enticing, intriguing, and possibly toxic. The danger is part of the experience. It is this depth of character which keeps me returning to it, nosing it in and trying to understand it fully. I love it on a hot day; the scent seems to intensify the heat. I run my fingers over it, enjoying the sensory dissonance. The leaves are oval and look soft, but the dryness of the foliage and its stiffness mean that my hand conflicts my eye. Even the sound of it under my fingers is a dry, stiff rustling. It is the sound and scent of a summer holiday in Italy, with golden gravel crunching underfoot. And light everywhere.
Pliny the Elder considered topiary to be akin to abortion. He was a great man, but mistaken in many things. My reading is that he considered it a frustration of the true course of nature, and that that was an expression of the vice hubris. Although the Romans brought their world, animal and human, to die for their entertainment in arenas across the empire, their most reflective thinkers considered that there were appropriate limits to this exploitation and manipulation of nature.
My favourite Buxus sempervirens grows in the garden of The Old Parsonage Hotel in Oxford (www.oldparsonage-hotel.co.uk). It is pictured below. I expect one ‘got away’ by accident, and grew to its natural height of 5m/15′ or so. It has been pruned back to a cloud structure of exposed trunks and balls of foliage. It is context-perfect. The garden is relatively small and rectilinear; it is enclosed by a wall on three sides and the house on the fourth. It is not a space for meandering paths and water in the middle distance. It is a place for order and precision.