Best Plants for Topiary

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Topiary is an art form that has been rediscovered by gardeners in the last 10-15 years. It’s now very fashionable to use buxus cones and cubes, spiralled conifers, or lilly pillys clipped into balls on sticks as focal points in the garden or to create a dramatic effect in a courtyard. If you’re thinking about having a go at topiary yourself you might be wondering which plants are the best to use. We asked leading topiary expert Philip Pratt, who actually produces these plants for the nursery industry.

Lilly pilly (Syzygium australe ‘Elite’)

Australian native lilly pillys are becoming very popular for hedging and general ornamental use. They produce flowers and attractive berries as well as interesting foliage, so many garden designers are using them as an alternative to box. Syzygium australe ‘Elite’ is easily Philip’s favourite. It is a tidy plant that isn’t usually troubled by lilly pilly psyllid, which causes ugly dimpling of the leaves on other lilly pillys. The downside is that ‘Elite’ is a dwarf variety, and it can take several years to train to the size and shape required.

Juniperus viginiana ‘Spartan’

Tough, vigorous and naturally dense, ‘Spartan’ is Philip’s preferred conifer for trimming. Unlike many other conifers, it doesn’t grow too big. Philip believes growth begins to slow down at about 4 metres (12′), although the plant may reach 6 metres (20′). Another advantage ‘Spartan’ has over other conifers is that it performs well in warmer areas providing it is not overwatered.


Bhutan cypress (Cupressus torulosa)

Unlike true pencil pines (Cupressus sempervirens var. stricta) which are variable in shape and form, Bhutan cypress is a reliable plant with a regular shape. It is generally used in large gardens, but clipped as a topiary its size can be limited indefinitely.

Japanese box (Buxus microphylla var. japonica)

This is Philip’s favourite box. He finds it fast growing, reliable and virtually free of insect problems. It also shoots very well after cutting back and lends itself to either really hard cutting or light trimming. Japanese box will grow everywhere in Australia except for the hot tropical areas.

Port wine magnolia (Michelia figo)

Although not normally considered a suitable subject for topiary, Philip has had tremendous success clipping and shaping port wine magnolias. They are evergreen shrubs with glossy green leaves, insignificant looking flowers and a marvellous perfume. Port wine magnolias grow well in most areas of Australia, except for the cold mountain zones.

Further information

It takes many years of painstaking work before a topiary is perfectly shaped and ready for sale at a retail nursery, and this is reflected in the price. They can cost between $500 and $1000 each.

Topiarised plants by Philip Pratt are available through the following retail nurseries:

Parkers Nursery
45-47 Tennyson Avenue
Turramurra, NSW, 2074.
Phone: (02) 9487 3888
Fax: (02) 9489 3081
Parterre Garden
33 Ocean Street
Woollahra, NSW, 2025
Phone: (02) 9363 5874
The Greenery Heidelberg
4 Banksia Street
Heidelberg, VIC, 3084
Phone: (03) 9459 8433 Parterre Encore
527 Military Road
Mosman, NSW, 2088
Phone: (02) 9960 5900
The Conservatory
80 Unley Road
Unley, SA, 5063
Phone: (08) 8272 9657
Fax: (08) 8373 5255
Jenny Walker’s Nursery
573 High Street
East Prahran, VIC, 3181
Phone: (03) 9510 4850