10 Best Plants for Topiaries (Top Picks)

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Topiary garden
Topiary plants can be shaped into a host of fascinating forms, from abstract shapes to animals! brewbooks / CC BY-SA 2.0

Topiary gardens showcase the most wonderful features of tough, evergreen shrubs. Walking through some of the world’s oldest or most famous topiaries often leaves spectators with a sense of awe and wonder. The gardens at Leven’s Hall, hundreds of years old and home to thousands of plants, are a testament to just how pliable yew trees and boxwood shrubs can be if they are given proper care.

Pruned to resemble the rounded tops of waves, larger-than-life peacocks, and the plumpest of perfectly curved spheres, the topiary plants in well-manicured gardens may sport surrealist, abstract, geometric, or realistic forms. The secret to maintaining a topiary garden is patient dedication, coupled with a humble appreciation of “topiary” as an art form. The majority of topiary plants are simply healthy shrubs or trees that have carefully been pruned and shaped over a few months to several years.

Generally, most plants that can maintain an upright shape and respond well to being pruned can be incorporated into a topiary garden. However, the best candidates for a low-maintenance topiary are species with dense branches and a bushy overall appearance. For larger shapes, aim to choose long-lived species that can quickly produce new growth after being pruned.

1) Common yew (Taxus baccata)

Common yew with fruit
The common yew is known for its dense branches which can be clipped to create rounded or sharp edges. Mykola Swarnyk, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to Europe, Northwest Africa, and Southwest Asia

The common yew has long been regarded as one of the best long-lived plants for a topiary garden. This culturally important woodland tree has a wealth of ornamental features and maintains a manageable full height of 35 – 65 feet (11 – 20 meters). Over time, the bark around its trunk and branches becomes increasingly scaley and flakey. Its leaves, which arise in spirals around productive stems, are deep green and are distinctly flat.

As a subject for a formal hedge or a topiary, the common yew is a fine choice for its capacity to maintain a well-defined shape. Its dense branches can be clipped to create rounded or sharp edges. Ornamental landscape designers may line stately pathways with various sizes of clipped yew and nary a stray branch left untrimmed!

To maintain the appearance of a yew topiary, this species can be pruned 2 – 3 times a year – preferably in early summer and in late August. Freshly formed foliage on young branches, which can regenerate from older wood, are bright green; these tend to darken to a lush, deep green with age. New growth can easily be clipped using a sturdy pair of pruning shears.

2) Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens)

Boxwood is an evergreen plant with oval-shaped small leaves that are arranged in pairs. MPF, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to Europe, Southwest Asia, and Northwest Africa

The quintessential topiary plant, the common box is a fantastic shrub for hedging and decorative purposes. Unmatched in its capacity to maintain its shape, grow densely, and respond favorably to pruning, it can be cultivated as a shrub or as a small tree. Evergreen, its relatively small leaves are oval-shaped, light to deep green, and arranged in pairs along the length of woody stems. Its wild stands are typically found in beech forests, where they tolerate a variety of shade conditions.

Dubbed the “rich man’s hedge”, boxwood is a tasteful choice for topiaries of all sizes. Many of its cultivars are recipients of the RHS Award of Garden Merit. There’s truly no mystery behind its omnipresence in the most established topiary and botanical gardens, where its shrubs are often pruned into shapes that awaken one’s imagination. From perfectly formed spheres atop terracotta pots to standalone, elephant-sized living sculptures, its shrubs have a knack for contributing a stately and timeless theme to gardens.

To maintain their appearance, boxwoods may be formally sheared several times a year. Traditionally, well-established shrubs are pruned in early June, around the time late spring festivities may begin to take place. However, modern horticulturists might recommend that the stems be pruned later in the year, after the peak growth period is over, or even earlier in the year, when cool conditions inhibit the spread of pathogens. To determine the timing that works for you, trial and error is key.

3) Common holly (Ilex aquifolium)

Common holly with fruit
Common holly’s bright red berries make an appearance from late summer to fall. Audrey Muratet, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to Europe, Southwest Asia, and Northwest Africa

Typically associated with Christmas, the common holly grows as an evergreen tree or shrub in shady oak and beech forests. Highly adaptable, it often forms dense colonies as a pioneering species in moist forest edges, shady cliffs, and gorges. Due to its capacity for rapid growth and spread, it may be deemed an invasive plant outside of its native range. Its award-winning cultivars tend to be less competitive, so it would be best to invest in these in place of the type variety.

The ornamental foliage of the common holly is set apart by spiny margins, a glossy and deep green finish, and a leather-like toughness. These are especially charming in late summer to fall, when ripe red berries appear on the tips of productive branches. Of course, if you intend to maintain your holly shrub as a frequently-pruned topiary plant, it is less likely to produce berries. Moreover, both male and female specimens need to be present for fruit production.

Holly bushes are typically pruned by snipping branches just above the buds of new leaves or by cutting them back to the main branch. The lowermost branches are usually left to extend towards the ground if an even shape and a bush-like appearance is desired. Holly can also be trained to develop into low trees with ball-shaped canopies. This requires more frequent pruning through the growth period.

4) Wax-leaf privet (Ligustrum japonicum)

Wax-leaf privet in bloom
Wax-leaf privet is a fast-growing plant that is capable of becoming invasive in certain regions. Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to Japan and Korea

Wax-leaf or Japanese privet has become naturalized in many parts of the US. It is frequently grown as an ornamental shrub or small tree because of its vibrant and dense foliage. Its summer blooms, which arise in spritely clusters along the tips of new stems, are infamous for having a somewhat offensive odor. When these are pollinated, they develop into purple berries. As this species’ canopy can be shaped into a large sphere, it is favored as a topiary plant.

This member of the olive family (Oleaceae) does tend to grow rapidly and is adaptable to various conditions, so it has the potential to turn into an invasive plant. While it is definitely one of the finest choices for topiary gardens throughout its native range, you might want to opt for slower-spreading alternatives if you are located in the Americas or Australia. Pruning new growth before the flowering period may help reduce the chances of spread. However, keep in mind that this will also prevent the tree from budding.

5) Fortune’s spindle (Euonymus fortunei)

Fortune's spindle 'Emerald gaiety'
‘Emerald Gaiety’ is a fortune’s spindle cultivar that looks great in topiary gardens thanks to its leaves that are flushed with white around the margins. Emőke Dénes, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to East Asia and the Philippines

Fortune’s spindle is favored by many horticulturists because of its large foliage and its various growth forms. Though it naturally persists as an evergreen shrub, it can also be encouraged to climb supporting structures, much like a vine. Its stems can measure as much as 20 feet (6 meters) long in optimal conditions, sending out small rootlets that are comparable to those of ivy.

For topiary gardens outside of this species’ native range, it’s best to opt for slower-growing or dwarf cultivars, such as ‘Emerald n’ Gold’, or ‘Emerald Gaiety’. These cultivars should be remarkably refreshing in an evergreen setup because their leaf margins are flushed with gold or cream-white tones. The type variety may unfortunately compete with native plants for resources. Plants that are propagated from mature, cut stems would also be more ideal as these are less likely to spread as climbers and are more likely to maintain their shrub form.

Pruning is actually a fantastic way to tame this vigorous grower. It is best clipped in spring or fall, particularly during weeks that coincide with its peak growth schedule. Cutting back the plant by as much as a third of its full size should encourage bushier growth in the succeeding season.

6) Kohuhu (Pittosporum tenuifolium)

Kohuhu can be grown as an evergreen shrub and is tolerant of poor conditions, like brief droughts and low-nutrient substrates. Nadiatalent, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to New Zealand

Also known as “black matipo” and “tawhiwhi”, the kohuhu is an evergreen shrub or small tree. It has a knack for tolerating poor conditions, such as low-nutrient substrates, harsh winds, and brief droughts. For this reason, it should be a fine addition to topiary gardens that may experience seasonal problems. However, though it does grow in infertile landscapes, its best features are brought out by proper drainage, adequate humidity, and full to partial sun.

Variegated kohuhu are some of the most highly sought varieties of this charming plant. With stems that grow to a maximum of about 12 feet (3.7 meters) tall, they can be used as moderately-sized accent plants in topiaries. Low-maintenance, the shrubs can easily be pruned into hedges that double as ornamental screens. A close inspection of the variegated foliage reveals wavy, sage-green leaves with distinctly cream-white margins.

‘Stephens Island’ and ‘Midget’ are also fantastic varieties. The former can be grown as small, potted trees that grow to about 6.5 feet (2 meters) at most. The latter naturally forms a dense, ball-shaped shrub with smaller, evergreen leaves. It is a great alternative to boxwood and tends to be less susceptible to pests. Both can tolerate mild frosts in winter.

7) Red tip photinia (Photinia x fraseri)

Red tip photinia leaves
It’s recommended to prune red tip photinia stems after the first wave of red leaves has faded. Père Igor, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Nursery hybrid

A truly multifunctional product of hybridization between Photinia glabra and P. serratifolia, the red tip photinia looks just as its common name suggests – the tips of its young stems produce flushes of crimson leaves. Compact and erect, it can be cultivated as a shrub or as a medium-sized tree boasting heights of up to 10 – 15 feet (3 – 4.6 meters). In optimal conditions, a single plant may spread to occupy a width that challenges its height.

Hardy to USDA zones 7 – 9, this showy variety is best for topiary gardens with full sun exposure and good drainage. It may appreciate brief periods in dry soil and is averse to acidic, wet conditions associated with high humidity. Ample ventilation should promote the production of its fiery tips, which initially appear in early spring. If you wish to encourage a second flush of red tips later in the year, it would be best to prune stems once the first wave of red leaves has faded in late spring.

8) Star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides)

Star jasmine flowers
Star jasmine produces eye-catching white flowers in the spring. S.G.S., CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to East and Southeast Asia

If your topiary garden could use some alluringly fragrant plants, look no further than the oriental star jasmine. This phenomenal plant has all the benefits of a fragrant hedge while maintaining a low-maintenance profile. While it typically grows as a sprawling shrub, its stems can climb over neighboring plants and supporting structures. It can thus be trained to grow over wire fences, lattices, and arbors.

In topiary gardens, this species can be trained to coat a wire-meshed sculpture to create the most elaborate shapes and forms. A recipient of the RHS Award of Garden Merit, it possesses vigorous, evergreen stems with densely packed, oval-shaped foliage. Glossy and deep green, the leaves may respond to winter temperatures with a flush of warm, bronzy hues.

In spring, star jasmine makes a statement as its stems become awash with its bright white flowers. As you’ll want to enjoy its blooms, the best time to prune the plant is usually after this period – in late spring to mid-summer.

9) Box honeysuckle (Lonicera nitida)

Box honeysuckle
Box honeysuckle is an evergreen bush that can reach heights of up to 5 feet if it is left unclipped. Krzysztof Golik, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to China

This member of the Caprifoliaceae or honeysuckle family is often used as a hedging or groundcover plant in well-manicured landscapes. As an evergreen bush, it rapidly sends out fine, leggy branches that are densely covered in pairs of small, bright green leaves. As its drooping branches respond well to being clipped into sharp edges, it is a low-maintenance alternative to the common boxwood. If left unclipped, this perennial shrub can grow to about 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall.

The ‘Elegans’ cultivar of box honeysuckle is widely used as an addition to the most elaborate of topiary gardens. Remarkably hardy and resistant to a wide range of pathogens, it’s great for creating low, traditional shapes. Its peak growth period, which is marked by rapidly elongated stems that give the shrub a more bushy and casual finish, begins as early as February. Both malleable and forgiving, it is a great choice with which to practice creating straight lines and sharp edges.

10) Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis)

Bay laurel
Bay laurel is becoming more and more popular as an ornamental plant and can be trained to grow as a low hedge. Marija Gajić, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to the Mediterranean

A top choice for aromatic topiaries, the bay laurel naturally grows as a large shrub or as a small, evergreen tree. Known for its use as a source of bay leaves, which gives intense flavor to many Mediterranean dishes, it is a versatile addition to every garden. Increasingly popular as an ornamental plant or as a statement tree, bay laurel can be trained to have a shaped canopy or to grow as a low hedge. Note, however, that this species is slow-growing.

The crown of a bay laurel tree can be pruned into whimsical, twisted forms or regularly clipped to maintain a more elegant, spherical shape. Highly variable in terms of height and spread, its specimens can grow to more than 50 feet (15 meters) tall with proper care! Of course, those used in topiary gardens are usually maintained at a low height. Specimens that are pre-clipped (in nurseries) and sold as container plants are often marketed as lollipops and cones.

Angeline L
About the author

Angeline L

I'm a passionate researcher and scuba diver with a keen interest in garden plants, marine life, and freshwater ecology. I think there’s nothing better than a day spent writing in nature. I have an academic and professional background in sustainable aquaculture, so I advocate for the responsible production of commercial fish, macroinvertebrates, and aquatic plants.

Read more about Pond Informer.

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