Topiaries: A Countdown to Extinction


Well, the Flower and Garden Festival has concluded, and Epcot has once again reverted to a botanical wasteland, devoid of any aesthetic value whatsoever.
Hideous.  Absolutely hideous.
For the next ten months, Disney gardening enthusiasts have nothing to do except ride Living With The Land over and over again, reliving the days when they didn’t have to settle for half-wrought zen gardens, pathetic jungle foliage, and those cliché palm-lined pathways.  If they have to walk through Canada’s dreary Victoria Gardens one more time, they’re going to slit their wrists.  They wait diligently for the return of the magical enhancements of the Flower and Garden Festival!  By which they mean the topiaries.
The new HGTV show “My Yard Goes Disney” offered brief hope, but this was shattered when in the very first episode, they trucked in Walt Disney World’s most hated landmark.
It seems the unfortunately-acronymed Flower and Garden festival brings new topiaries every year.  Lion King in the African Outpost.  Pandas in China.  Perfume bottles in France (seriously).  Every year they get more elaborate.  This year, they had a Lotso Huggin Bear that actually squirted strawberry scent.  They presented Lightning and Mater in life-size plant form.  Next year, there’s talk of bringing in a giant Blake Griffin topiary, posed as if he was dunking Spaceship Earth.
One plant preparing to sacrifice another plant.
People love these things, and who can blame them?  They are very well done.  There’s just one problem.  They aren’t topiaries.
There are two schools of Topiary Thought (and we offer online courses in both of them, for the low price of $9999 per credit hour).  The new school involves creating an exact likeness of a character using organic material like moss, vines, and Donald Trump’s hair.  I’m not denying their cuteness and pictorial qualities.  But to me, they seem to be sort of cheating.  Isn’t it really just a giant Disney chia pet?  They took a plastic sculpt of Captain Hook and covered him in lawn weed.
I’m of the old Topiary school.  Back in the early days of Walt Disney World, the place was a topiary haven.  The Transportation and Ticket Center, which today has the same aesthetic appeal as a bus terminal, was a veritable topiary zoo.  There were seals, elephants, bears, giraffes.  They dotted the verdant fields and plains of the monorail tracks, providing a whimsical backdrop for your journey to the Magic Kingdom.  They also had one thing in common:  They were pruned shrubs.
Yes, each topiary was an individual plant, carefully sheared by skilled landscape artists until it took on the shape of whatever it was intended to represent.  The process of making them took years, as you were essentially waiting for a tree to grow, and lopping off the parts that didn’t work.  The results were more monochromatic (solid green) than their future counterparts, and were limited in the shapes they could take because it was a single plant.  It was hard to show detail except on large scale works.
Disney horticulturists labored for many years creating perfect miniature Tree of Life topiaries.
With the arrival of the moss-covered topiaries, the single-shrub versions have slowly been marching towards extinction.  A few scattered ones remain.  There’s an elephant topiary next to Dumbo, who up until a few years ago once graced the path from the Magic Kingdom to the Contemporary Resort.  There’s our old friend the sea serpent, lining the moat near the Hub.  Disneyland actually has several beautiful topiaries outside It’s A Small World.  But more and more, we get the multi-colored creeper versions.
Most people recognize the moose as an old school topiary, whereas the dude in the front row of the boat is a fiberglass shell covered in peat moss.
I guess modern audiences prefer the new kind, but to me, the TTC sculptures are A New Hope, while the Flower and Garden festival is Attack of the Clones.  CGI may look photo-real compared to some of the old practical special effects, but it lacks a certain solidity.  I’ll be sad when the last of the old single-plant topiaries dies off.

Comments (7)

  1. Shelly, do not destroy my illusions! 🙂

  2. Actually, a few of the Magic Kingdom/TTC area topiaries are/were made of plastic.

  3. That’s what I also read about how some of the early tops got started. At the time they seemed cutting edge but now they’re a little dull ~ yuk yuk. There is certainly a good case though for the living tops vs the Rose Bowl inspired beast.

  4. Didnt the WDW topiaries get their start because they were having to use trams and busses to get guests from the TTC to the Magic Kingdom, and they needed something for people to look at while breathing in diesel exhaust?

  5. This post reminded me of being a kid, and feeling the excitement mounting as the parking lot tram took you past pruned topiaries of every kind as you smoothly zoomed your way up to the Magic Kingdom entrance. It’s a huge shame if they are discontinuing this!

  6. It is a HUGE cheat! It’s like when they print paintings onto canvas.

  7. I didn’t realize they weren’t the pruned-shrub kind! Cheaters!

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