Those pesky topiary elves again…!

I first posted the basis for this blog back in November 2016. At the time, I was a bit apologetic that the piece was only marginally to do with writing historical fiction, but I now am of the view that, when I write about gardens or plants, or indeed birds and wildlife, instead of historical fiction, it simply reveals another aspect of “who I am”, and is no bad thing. Gardens and gardening do often have a place in my novels, but I have always been interested in plants and nature, and so writing about them in my blog does seem just as natural as writing about writing!

The November blog was basically about topiary. And the reason I want to talk about it again is that, here in France this summer, we have revisited the wonderful, and surprising, shrub sculptures that sparked my post last year, but that I have also a sadder tale to tell about them…

You may or may not much care for topiary – clipped box, yew and suchlike – but I really rather love it. I maintain a few little box hedges and balls in my own garden. But, in the Vercors mountains, in south eastern France, an area where we’ve been going for our summer holidays for twenty-five years, there are certain remote mountain roads where you will find hundreds of clipped box hedges, shapes and sculptures. There are hedges, with straight sides and flat tops, balls and pyramids and, most astonishing of all, funny faces, and all of them are on genuinely isolated mountain roads. I think the faces are a relatively recent addition, for I don’t remember seeing them twenty-five years ago. They seem very much in keeping with the French sense of fun in their public art – public gardens and roundabouts, for example, are often wonderfully quirky and delightful. (More of this in a moment…)

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2016 photos © Author

The first time we saw them, all those years ago, we thought it hilarious that someone was apparently travelling these mountain roads with a pair of topiary shears. Because, honestly, there are miles and miles of bushes, painstakingly and (it would seem) lovingly clipped to crisp or curved perfection. Now, we still think it’s delightful that someone – who I wonder? – takes the trouble to do all this work. Is he/she alone, or is there a gang of them? And does someone pay for it to be done? And why?

To discover these clipped wonders along mountain roads for the first time was so surprising that it seemed almost magical, as if – as we used to say to the children – the elves had done it!

We have never seen the topiarist(s), even though, again this year, some of the clippings were clearly quite recent. We live in hope that, maybe, one day… Unless, of course, it is the elves. (And, actually, if anybody does know the answers to these questions, I’m not sure I really want to be enlightened! I think the idea of the topiarists being elves is just too charming…)

It was lovely this year seeing some of the same “sculptures”, and some I’d not noticed last time.

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2017 Photos © Author And, yes, it’s the same chap! His friend from last year is still there too. I have a suspicion that one or two of the round ones are potential candidates for sculpture…)











For the blog last November, seeing the mountain sculptures again last year had set me wondering about how long topiary had been an art, and, specifically, whether they had topiary in mediaeval gardens, given my particular interest in mediaeval times. If you’d like to read that blog, it’s here…

But, this time, I want to talk about something much more contemporary, a modern invader – albeit a pretty enough little creature – that hasn’t yet attacked these wonderful mountain sculptures, but very well might…

1854 - Cydalima perspectalis - Box tree moth
Photo © David Hughes

You may have come across the Box moth, if you have box hedges and if you live in a place where they have become invasive. The RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) says that the moth is a native of East Asia and became established in Europe in 2007. The adult moth was first reported in the UK in 2008, whereas the caterpillar wasn’t found in gardens until 2011. But since then it has become widespread in London and surrounding counties.

The understory is (was) box © Author
A hedge in a country garden. The green leaves are, sadly, not box © Author

It’s clearly here in France. As we drive around we can see the devastation that it causes – box trees stripped bare of leaves. It looks horrible!

We have noticed that some trees do seem to grow new leaves, but presumably only to be eaten again…

(By the way, this is not the notorious “box blight”, which is a fungal disease that results in bare patches and die-back on a bush, and I think is pretty difficult to get rid of.) In a garden, if you are willing to do so, chemical sprays can be used – quite successfully, I understand – to control the box moth, though of course spraying does have potentially serious side effects to wildlife.

Photo © David Hughes

Our gîte owner sprays his hedges (and his topiary squirrels) and, so far, they have not been attacked. I suppose that all owners of topiary gardens, and especially perhaps those whose gardens are famous for their topiary – like the Château de Villandry, for example –must take steps to guard against the dreaded moth…

But, out in the countryside, what can possibly be done? I suppose the “elves” could take a spray with them when they go out clipping – perhaps they do – but, seriously, it’s hard to see how anything could prevent the moth attacking these lovely sculptures.


Pretty (?) box moths Photo © Author
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Beautiful lavender, rather spoiled. Photo © Author

And our fears about the potential danger were confirmed when we drove into a different mountainous area specifically to look for a particularly wonderful field of lavender that we knew would be growing along one of those windy roads. We found the lavender, growing, as it has for the past several years, in all its lovely heady glory, but it was absolutely covered in – box moths!

This field wasn’t particularly close to our mountain sculptures, but these pretty little horrors can of course fly! It would simply be so very sad if they flew that way and destroyed all that wonderful topiary work…

So, that’s a potentially worrying prospect, but let me end on a much more cheerful note.

I mentioned earlier the French sense of fun in the way they present their public art, such as in gardens and on roundabouts. And, as an example, and following the topiary theme, I give you these…an elephant and a dragon.

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Elephant and friend. Photo © Author
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Dragon and friend. Photo © Author
© Author

These two charming creatures can be found in “our” village, close to our gîte, Montelier, which is one of only eighteen four-flower villages in the Auverge-Rhône-Alps region (out of 516 villages and towns in the region with all levels of  flower label). The town gardeners go in for  particularly charming animal “sculptures”, including topiary, as part of their plant displays. (More on the Concours des villes et villages fleuris – “towns and villages in bloom competition” – in a future post, perhaps…)


You probably can’t see from my photos that each topiary animal has a “person” riding them… And who might these be, one wonders…? Here is a slightly closer, yet still rather mysterious, view of one of them…

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© Author

A topiarist elf perhaps?

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